Rand Paul faces GOP fire on NSA

Rand Paul faces GOP fire on NSA
© Francis Rivera

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Washington braces for Trump's next move on Iran Overnight Defense: Latest on Iran after Trump halts planed strike | Dems call Trump's approach 'erratic' | Key Republican urges Trump to retaliate | Esper reportedly getting Defense secretary nomination MORE is facing severe blowback from his Senate colleagues and GOP presidential rivals for forcing the temporary expiration of several national security programs.

Several Senate Republicans say Paul’s (R-Ky.) tactics show he’s out of sync with most of his party and call into question his fitness to serve as commander in chief, a criticism echoed by rivals such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the campaign trail.

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“It shows how far outside the mainstream he is of where the Republican Party is, on issues of national security and national defense,” said a GOP Senate aide.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainVeterans group to hand out USS John McCain T-shirts for July 4 on the National Mall Will we ever have another veteran as president? Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE (R-Ariz.), a frequent sparring partner, bashed him to reporters Sunday as “the worst,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility California governor predicts 'xenophobic' GOP will likely be third party in 15 years This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request MORE (R-Ky.), under pressure over the expiration of National Security Agency surveillance powers, blamed Paul for the lapse.

Republican colleagues lambasted Paul during a closed-door meeting in the Senate’s Strom Thurmond Room. They were all the more infuriated by the fact that Paul didn’t show up to take the tongue-lashing.

The fight spilled out onto the Senate floor, when Paul repeatedly interrupted McCain to ask Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward MORE (R-Iowa), who was presiding, about how much time was left to debate.

GOP aides privately grumble that if a terrorist attack were to strike the United States while the NSA’s cellphone surveillance program is shuttered, it would prove a political calamity for Paul’s career.

Paul made a similar point Sunday on the Senate floor, where he said that some people were hoping for an attack so that they could blame him.

He backed off those comments in an interview Monday.

“Sometimes, in the heat of battle, hyperbole can get the better of anyone, and that may be the problem there,” he said on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom.”

“The point I was trying to make is, I think people do use fear to try to get us to give up our liberty,” he said.

Team Paul thinks the public tiff is good for the campaign’s message. Many conservative activists have long distrusted McCain because of his championing of campaign finance and immigration reforms.

“I think it’s playing well with grassroots conservatives outside the Beltway. It’s a classic divide between Republican insiders and people outside the Beltway,” said Matt Kibbe, the president and founder of advocacy group FreedomWorks.

“This is his sweet spot,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to Paul. “He’s a defender of the Bill of Rights and he’s fighting against the Washington machine. It fits right into his whole reason for running.

“It’s OK if people hate him in Washington because everyone hates Washington,” Darling added. “Members of Congress won’t decide who’s going to be the nominee for president, so who cares what they think?”

Polling evidence gives both sides some talking points.

A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll conducted last week found Paul tied for second place in Iowa, the first contest of the 2016 GOP primary.

But the same poll found that the Kentucky Republican’s favorability rating has dropped 9 points since January, more than that of any of his rivals.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who holds weekly meetings with grassroots conservative leaders, noted that critics initially faulted Ronald Reagan for taking a too 

confrontational stance against the Soviet Union.

“When people attacked Reagan, they thought they were winning the argument by loudly stating, ‘He wants to confront the Soviet Union.’ Turns out that was a fairly popular position,” he said.

“I think he’s in a very strong position,” Norquist said of Paul. “Americans tend not to trust the government with lots of power. Republican primary voters tend not to trust Obama with a great deal of power.”

But not all Republicans outside of Washington share this assessment.

“The world is as dangerous if not more dangerous than immediately after 9/11, and homeland security is a heightened concern,” said Bryan Eppstein, a GOP strategist based in Texas. “With that in mind, [Paul’s] position is probably held by a very small minority of other people. It’s playing a dangerous game of playing chicken in the political process.”