In forcing the Senate's hand to vote on a controversial foreign aid bill, Sen. Rand Paul may get more than he bargained for.
Senators engaged in a prolonged floor debate about foreign policy today, demonstrating how little support there is in the chamber for the libertarian views of the Kentucky Republican.
Paul has for months sought to force the Senate to a vote on cutting off foreign aid to Pakistan until it meets an assortment of specified conditions, and recently added Egypt and Libya to his bill. Paul boasted about his success getting a vote after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included his bill in the measures being voted on during the get-out-of-town schedule late tonight.
Paul wants the aid spigot to Egypt and Libya turned off until questions are answered about incursions of U.S. diplomatic compounds in the two countries and individuals responsible for the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
"In no way should the United States government be sending money to governments who are not our ally, who blatantly do not respect our country, and who work to compromise the safety of our allies and citizens abroad," Paul said. "I am pleased that the Senate leadership has listened to my pleas for an end to this and have agreed to debate and vote on this pressing issue."
Paul's elation is about process, however, not substance. While there has never been any doubt that the Senate would reject Paul's proposal, his insistence generated a coordinated barrage of floor speeches from Senators in both parties today in opposition of his foreign policy views.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), had the task of presiding over the Senate during the debate on the proposal. He praised Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and other GOP Senators for leading the push against Paul's view of the U.S. role in the world.
"What I saw this morning was an articulate, thoughtful and courageous statement against a resolution that would do grave harm to this nation's national interests if it became law and if it bound the United States government and cut off aid to these countries," Blumenthal said.
Graham, the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, has been critical of the Paul measure in interviews with reporters over the past several weeks. But he saved some of his most biting rhetoric for today's floor debate.
"If you want to empower the terrorists that exist in this world, pass this amendment because they will go crazy with hope and excitement," Graham said. "If you want to destroy the hope of everybody in the Middle East who has been brave enough to stand up to these thugs and lose their family members, if you want to break their spirit, pass this amendment.
"If this amendment passes, good luck finding anybody anywhere in the world who will partner with us, who would be brave enough to stand up to these thugs," he said.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) criticized the suggestion of restricting aid to Egypt as an affront to Israel's security. Corker has become one of the GOP leaders on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he is expected to take the lead upon the retirement of ranking member Dick Lugar (Ind.).
"The aid that we send to Egypt is to reinforce in many ways the Camp David accord that is very important to Israel, which is one of our major allies, one of the biggest allies we have in the world," Corker said, explaining that he recently discussed Egypt-Israel relations with the powerful Egyptian military leadership.
For his part, Graham did not restrict his criticism of Paul to the specific proposal scheduled to be voted on around midnight. He also took aim at much lower Defense Department and foreign aid funding levels called for in a budget resolution that Paul wrote this past spring.
The deal for late night Senate votes will actually allow Graham and others to send a message in favor of overseas engagement. A coalition of more than 80 Senators will get a chance to adopt a measure that would urge "diplomatic and economic pressure" to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability.
"We know that Iran would create access for terrorists - access for them - to these nuclear weapons, making the Middle East a nuclear tinderbox," Blumenthal said in supporting that measure. "We cannot trust this regime. We know that fact beyond any potential doubt."
Paul was grim about the consequences of the resolution beyond sending a signal to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others in the Iranian government.
"I think a vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive war. I know of no other way to interpret this resolution," Paul said.
In effect, he argued that if Iran managed to go too far down the path of developing nuclear weaponry in spite of diplomatic efforts, the resolution would endorse military intervention.