By Alexander Bolton - 02/08/11 11:00 AM EST
Rand Paul has broken with tradition by eschewing the unwritten rules for freshman senators: Keep a low profile, learn the chamber’s arcane procedures and cozy up to senior colleagues.
Unlike ex-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and many others, Paul (R-Ky.) has tried to drive policymaking in the upper chamber instead of sitting quietly in the back.
He has pushed a proposal to cut $500 billion in federal spending over the course of a single year. That has applied pressure to GOP leaders, including Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, to take a similarly hard approach or risk looking timid to Tea Party activists.
Right-wing senators have taken note of Paul, with some observers saying they are following his lead.
He was the first Senate Republican to publicly dismiss as insufficient a proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut $32 billion from the federal budget for 2011.
Hours later, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) released a letter warning House Republican leaders that their spending plan was inadequate.
And on Monday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the most influential fiscal hawks in Congress, said Paul’s budget blueprint is viable.
“I think we could do it,” Coburn told the National Review Online. “It’s entirely possible.”
Defying Republican orthodoxy, Paul has called for steep cuts in defense spending. Picking a fight with the pro-Israel lobby, he is seeking an end to all foreign aid, including aid to the U.S. ally.
Like his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the 48-year-old senator is provocative and adept at attracting headlines. Father and son hold many of the same positions, though they differ on earmarks, with the elder strongly supporting the pet projects.
Paul is one of three founding members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, which has set itself up as a tacit rival to the Senate GOP leadership.
And, perhaps most remarkable in the clubby, well-heeled Senate, Paul criticized McConnell’s cherished role model, Sen. Henry Clay (Ky.).
Paul questioned Clay’s role as the “Great Compromiser” of 19th-century American politics and suggested that for Republican leaders to compromise on federal spending today is tantamount to deals that extended slavery 160 years ago.
“Henry Clay’s life story is, at best, a mixed message,” Paul said. “Henry Clay’s great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war.
“Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance, during his 50 years of public life, of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself,” he added.
McConnell walked off the Senate floor in the middle of Paul’s maiden speech.
An aide to McConnell said the leader couldn’t attend the entire speech because of previously scheduled meetings and noted that McConnell praised it in a press release.
But it’s well-known that McConnell considers Clay one of his role models and closely adheres to the rules and traditions of the Senate.
McConnell hung a portrait of Clay in his Capitol office shortly after moving in and wrote his college thesis on Clay and the Compromise of 1850.
He told Scripps Howard News Service several years ago that Clay “understood the need for compromises that were truly important for the country. … I think that remains just as true today as it did in 1820 or 1850.”
Other GOP freshmen — even rising stars such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — have kept a lower profile.
“The smart move is to stay quiet for a while until you figure out our footing, to pick out a few issues and carve out an issue of expertise,” said a Republican strategist.
“I think Paul truly wants to be a representative of the Tea Party in Congress and not just use it to get elected,” said the strategist. “He views the Tea Party philosophy as a way to govern. Too often people are more worried about senatorial courtesy than speaking up about the important issues.”
Donald Gross, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kentucky, said Paul has become “locked in his own creation” because he ran for office as an outspoken critic of business-as-usual in Washington and now voters and the media expect him to fulfill that role.
Then-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) told Clinton shortly after she won election to the Senate in 2000 that her political celebrity would count for little in the upper chamber and she should make it a priority to learn about issues and procedure.
Franken followed that advice when he came to the Senate as a celebrity freshman in 2009. He still declines to speak to most of the Capitol Hill press corps and saves his time for local news outlets.
Scott Jennings, a member of the Kentucky Republican Party’s executive committee, said Paul promised to take aggressive stances during the 2010 election.
“One of the underlying key reasons he was able to build such momentum in the Republican primary is he presented the view and vision of the next senator from Kentucky as being someone who would lead from the front,” said Jennings.
“The opponent gave the vibe as someone who would blend in with the pack,” Jennings said in reference to Trey Grayson, Paul’s primary opponent, whom McConnell endorsed.
“It was an incredibly bold debut,” said Moira Bagley, Paul’s spokeswoman. “The best way to explain that is that he didn’t want to waste any time in making good on promises he made on the campaign trail.”
Paul’s debut raised eyebrows back home.
“I thought it telling that McConnell walked out during the speech,” said Al Cross, a Kentucky political columnist.
“The first thing he did is criticize one of the most outstanding senators who ever served this state. He’s not so much about Kentucky as he is about national issues. He is a national-oriented person and has a lot to learn about Kentucky.”
In his press release, McConnell stated, “I want to congratulate Sen. Paul on his maiden speech in the Senate, and applaud him for taking the opportunity to underscore the seriousness of the fiscal situation we’re in.”
The reaction in Kentucky was more mixed.
Newspapers in Lexington and Louisville both published a column by The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank panning the address.
“It was an unusual occurrence to find both the major papers running a piece about a local senator from a national paper,” said Cross.
Some Tea Party activists in Kentucky, however, were pleased with the strong statement, even though it took shots at a home-state hero.