Graham blasts Cruz, Paul presidential credentials

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee GOP senators drafting legislation to keep immigrant families together MORE (R-S.C.) on Thursday questioned the presidential credentials of Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes 6B defense bill This week: House GOP caught in immigration limbo Amendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE (R-Texas) for supporting legislation to take military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command. 

Graham took aim at the potential Republican 2016 candidates after the Senate defeated a bill that would have taken the decision to prosecute major criminal cases away from military commanders.

Graham didn’t mention Paul or Cruz by name, but he vowed that Thursday’s vote would be an issue during the 2016 presidential election.

“You want to be commander in chief? You told me a lot today about who you are as a commander in chief candidate,” Graham said at a press conference after the vote.

“You were willing to fire every commander in the military for reasons I don’t quite understand,” he said. “We’ll have a good discussion as to whether or not you understand how the military actually works.”

Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that Cruz was "a proud cosponsor of this legislation."

"While other efforts over the last decade have failed to fix the problem, this bill applies measures successfully implemented by many of our allies' armed forces," she said. "He believes it can actually fix the problem, whereas other efforts made over the last decade have not."

Paul and Cruz were two of 11 Republicans to vote for the sexual assault legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is also a potential 2016 candidate, voted against Gillibrand's bill. Rubio had said before the vote Thursday that he had not yet made up his mind.

While much has been made about the divisions between Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on the Democratic side, Graham’s comments suggest that the heated debate could reverberate for Republicans as well.

Graham, who is a military lawyer in the Air Force Reserves, was adamant that Gillibrand’s proposal was the wrong way to tackle sexual assault in the military.

Graham suggested that some of the Republicans who backed Gillibrand’s bill did so because they were concerned about the “war on women.”

“I’ve heard people on my side say, ‘I don’t want to get on the wrong side of the war on women,” said Graham, who is facing several Republicans in a June Senate primary.

Graham also took aim at Democrats who were pulling for Gillibrand’s bill.

On the floor before the vote, Graham said that the bill was not about sexual assault but was about “liberal people wanting to gut the military justice system."

He praised the 11 Democrats who voted against Gillibrand’s bill, saying it “took a lot of guts now to stand up to some of the forces on the other side.”

“I am really upset by the tactics used,” Graham said, adding that he had “heard stories” — though he offered no evidence — that fundraisers had been canceled over the issue.

— This story was updated at 6:05 p.m.