Over the course of two-and-a-half minutes in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Rand Paul set off a few parliamentary explosions in the Senate, likely detonated another trademark "money bomb" for his presidential campaign, and seized a leadership role in what seems likely to be a prolonged, bipartisan debate over the way the U.S. handles terrorist threats.
Hours after Paul used a range of parliamentary maneuvers to blocked the Senate from extending the Patriot Act, the contentious anti-terror law that expires June 1, and forced his Kentucky colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to call senators back for a rare Sunday session on May 31, some of his colleagues suggested his motives were purely self-serving.
"I'm sure it's a great revenue raiser," Arizona Senator John McCain told reporters, referring to Paul's use of lengthy Senate floor speeches to win contributions for his campaign.
For Paul, though, the standoff was also a political coup that exposed the deep rift in both parties—but especially the Republican Party—over foreign policy and the so-called war on terror. It also showed the iconoclastic Kentuckian's ability to win allies across political lines. Eight Republicans joined 45 Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine in voting against advancing the Patriot Act extension (McConnell made a ninth Republican "no" vote when he switched his vote at the end, but that was on a procedural move that will allow him to call the legislation up for a re-vote).
Earlier in the week, when Paul appeared to be stopping short of a full-scale filibuster, Senate colleagues seemed tolerant of his opposition to the bill.
Attitudes quickly changed as the clock ticked over Friday to Saturday during a marathon session in which senators hustled to wrap up matters before their vacation. Everything was going as planned until McConnell failed to marshal enough votes to pass the Patriot Act extension.
"There aren't 60 votes," said the veteran Republican, referring to the super-majority needed to cut off debate and enact bills in Congress' upper chamber. He then asked for unanimous consent to approve an extension of the law until June 8, a move which would have given the Senate a week after returning from vacation to craft a deal.
Paul stood up. "Reserving the right to object: We have entered into a momentous debate," Paul said. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, sitting a row in front of him, rolled his eyes.
"This is a debate about whether a warrant with a single name of a single company can be used to collect all of the record, all of the phone records of all the people in our country," Paul continued. "Our forefathers would be aghast."
Before this, Paul and his allies—especially Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat—had been trying to negotiate for roll call votes on amendments that they wanted to add the Patriot Act. According to a Senate staffer who had knowledge of the talks but who is not permitted to discuss them publicly, they foundered, with opponents and supporters wanting to see where the votes were before they really negotiated. On the floor, Paul proposed that the six amendments he'd been advocating could be boiled down to votes on "two amendments on a simple majority vote."
That didn't happen, so Paul and his across-the-aisle allies dug in. "I renew my request with an amendment to extend the provisions until June 5," said McConnell. Wyden objected. "I renew my request with an amendment to extend the provisions until June 3," said McConnell. New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who, like Wyden, had joined Paul in a 10-1/2-hour speaking marathon against the bill on Wednesday, objected.
The upshot was that the Senate will return on May 31, a Sunday, the day before the Patriot Act is due to expire. Instead of a vote one week before the deadline, there would be a vote hours before the deadline. Backers of the bill hope the coming week will be used to work out a deal to extend the law, recess or no recess. "We’ve got a week to discuss it, we’ll have one day to do it," said McConnell. But Paul signaled via social media that he'll also be using the time to build opposition to the Patriot Act.
The public debate will coincide with the launch of Paul's tour for his new book, Taking a Stand, and bump up against the June 1 Graham "announcement" that is expected to launch his bid for the Republican party's presidential nomination.
The South Carolinian reacted to the delay of the Patriot Act with a denunciation of Paul. "When I get back, I’m going to challenge his construct that the NSA and those who work there are more dangerous to our country than the al-Qaeda and ISIL threat," he told Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski.
This was exactly the reaction Paul hoped for when he started his weeklong war of attrition against the anti-terror law. In Philadelphia, on Monday, Paul acknowledged that he did not have the votes to win the amendments he wants, but hoped he had enough support outside the Capitol to make the process infamous. "What I will demand is we have time on the floor to debate this," he said, "and I will demand that amendments that we put forward are given a chance on the Senate floor."
Paul thereby tipped off fellow senators of exactly what ended up happening. While his campaign is not revealing specific donation amounts for the week, or detailed results from multiple daily appeals to donors, Paul succeeded—with Democratic help—in cutting off the clearest paths to renewing the Patriot Act. He set up a week of arguments with more hawkish Republicans, giving voters in his party a stark choice between two potential courses on foreign policy.
One of his potential rivals, as-yet undeclared presidential hopeful Chris Christie, seized the opportunity hours after Paul left the Senate floor.
"The Senate's failure to extend the Patriot Act is a failure of the U.S. government to perform its most important function—protecting its citizens from harm," the New Jersey governor said in a Saturday morning statement. "This is the unfortunate result of misguided ideologues who have no real world experience in fighting terrorism putting their uninformed beliefs above the safety and security of our citizens. This dysfunction is what we have come to expect from Washington, D.C., but usually it does not have such dangerous and severe consequences."
Paul would happily take credit for "dysfunction" like this. In Philadelphia he repeated a common make-my-day anecdote about just how ready he was to go beyond the Patriot Act's renewal deadline, if it meant he could have a debate and end the bulk data collection.
"One senator came up to me and said, ‘If you defeat the Patriot Act, what will happen? How could we possibly survive?’" Paul recalled. “And I said maybe, just maybe, we could rely on the Constitution for a few hours."
—Derek Wallbank and Terrence Dopp contributed to this story.