Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ran against the Washington establishment in 2010, but the tea party candidate is finding it doesn’t hurt his cause to work within the system.
The libertarian-minded conservative recently joined Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) to launch a consensus GOP jobs plan supported by the vast majority of the Senate minority. Paul volunteered for the job and then proceeded to sell the plan the old-fashioned way: through one-on-one conversations with fellow Republicans and by advocating for it in private caucuses. It’s a tack that belies his bomb-thrower reputation.
“I think he is working hard at becoming a legislator,” McCain said Tuesday. “He’s been very easy to deal with.”
Republican Senate aides describe Paul as energetic and say he has displayed a keen interest in legislating. Although Kentucky’s junior Senator remains a reliably conservative vote on policy, he is viewed as a good listener who has tried to build consensus behind his ideas.
GOP aides say Paul has prioritized learning the levers and traditions of the Senate, and he has channeled his efforts to affect policy in a manner deemed “constructive” and results-oriented by most Republicans.
That style led Paul to request a ride on Air Force One in September so he could talk with President Barack Obama about infrastructure spending — a meeting the commander in chief granted. Paul also sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asking to sit in on a Democratic caucus lunch to have an exchange of ideas. During a brief interview, Paul said his background as an ophthalmologist has shaped his approach to governing.
“I see things problem-oriented, solution-oriented,” Paul told Roll Call. “If you’ve got a disease of the eye and you need surgery, I want to fix it. That’s the same way I see it up here. And I guess I’m also new enough that I believe we can do anything — or that I can do anything, so I just jump in feet first.
“One of the fascinating things about being up here eight months is I already see that I’m a part of what’s going on and trying to effect change,” Paul added.
Last year, Paul won the Republican nomination for Senate in the Bluegrass State by defeating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) handpicked candidate in the primary. Paul and McConnell attempted to move past their differences, with the newly minted nominee accepting help from the Minority Leader in the general election.
But early on in Washington, D.C., Paul fulfilled expectations generated partly by his outsider campaign and partly by the image of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), the libertarian-leaning Republican in the midst of his third run for president.
In the spring, Paul threatened to derail reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act by temporarily lodging a one-man filibuster against the bill. And Paul has repeatedly joined with a small band of conservatives to oppose major fiscal legislation such as the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, supporting less popular alternatives. Paul has offered his own austere budget and has attempted to force votes on several of his amendments, to the irritation of Democratic leaders.
The Senate operates by unanimous consent, allowing any Member to bring the chamber to halt — at almost any time and for any reason — if he or she chooses. And this year, each time the chamber was set to consider a controversial issue, the question of whether Paul or another freshman Senator with tea party roots would filibuster always loomed.
Paul continues to employ the practice of temporarily halting the passage of certain bills — most recently legislation to continue financial aid to elderly and disabled refugees — either because of his opposition or to negotiate changes. But even Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who has had nice things to say about Paul on the floor, complimented the Kentucky Republican for being judicious in his use of this procedural tool.
“I’ve watched him carefully since he came,” the Illinois Democrat said. “We’ve come to him sometimes with his amendments, and I think he’s been reasonable. I don’t have a negative view of what he’s done. I think he’s exercising his authority as a Senator.”
A senior Republican Senate aide cautioned that Paul still occasionally plays the role of a partisan renegade, but this individual said the freshman tends not to alienate other Members in doing so. “He’s a bit all over the map,” the aide said. And Tuesday’s interview with Paul made clear that he is still willing to express his views in sharp terms.
Asked why he decided to push for a Senate Republican jobs plan, Paul mimicked Obama’s plea to Congress to approve his jobs bill “right away,” saying: “I have this bad echo in my ear: ‘pass it, pass it, pass it now.’” Paul also charged that Obama has failed to work with Republicans on a consensus jobs agenda, saying the president would prefer to play politics with the issue than find common ground on legislation.
“On a one-to-one basis, I think the president’s very personable,” Paul said, recalling his conversation with Obama on Air Force One. “We had a very good conversation, I thought. ... I think there’s a contrast, though. People say they’re for something, and then he got off the plane and went on and on and on about millionaires and billionaires not paying enough taxes.”