Rand Paul roils the Senate with NATO blockade

Rand Paul roils the Senate with NATO blockade
© Greg Nash

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBooker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen Bottom line MORE is drawing the ire of his colleagues by being the lone holdout on a treaty allowing Montenegro to have membership in NATO.

The Kentucky Republican says it is in the United States’ best interest to keep the small Eastern European country out of the alliance, but some of his colleagues think he is playing a leverage game with Senate leadership.

Tensions surrounding the issue boiled over on the Senate floor last week when Paul blocked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEarth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders MORE (R-Ariz.) from bringing up a vote on the treaty.

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“The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin,” McCain said angrily. “You are achieving the objectives of trying to dismember this small country, which has already been the subject of an attempted coup.”

Paul responded a day later, calling the 80-year-old McCain “unhinged.”

“I think he makes a really, really strong case for term limits,” Paul said Thursday on MSNBC. “I think maybe he's past his prime.”

Paul’s office also released a statement that said it is “unwise” to allow Montenegro into NATO because it would add to America’s military burden.

“Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan),” his office wrote following McCain’s accusation. “In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt.”

One Republican senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Paul blocked the treaty because he wants a floor vote on the 2016 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) that former President Obama used to launch the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Paul has spoken out at length about the need to review, reform or repeal the AUMF, which allows the president to decide how and when to go to war with another nation with little congressional input or involvement.

“He’s always been isolationist against anything the United States has ever done,” the senator said. “There’s a certain element in the Republican Party that is very isolationist, I’m sure he’s representing that.”

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Senate Dem: Trump 'using immigrants as pawns' Bottom Line MORE (Md.), told The Hill that Paul held up the NATO vote “to get something considerable."

Cardin — who had joined McCain on the floor to push for a debate and vote on the treaty before Paul blocked the measure — said his fellow senators are upset with the stall tactics.

He added that Paul was in talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.) to work out a compromise on the issue.

Corker’s office did not respond to request for comment.

Reuters reported Tuesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Senate to vote on ratifying Montenegro as a NATO member in a letter to leadership dated March 7.  

He called for a floor vote on the issue before a NATO summit in a few months.  

"Montenegro's participation in the May NATO Summit as full member, not as an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity," Tillerson wrote. "It is strongly in the interests of the United States that Montenegro's membership in NATO be ratified.”

Montenegro, a tiny nation north of Greece in the Balkans, has attempted to join NATO for more than seven years. The move has the support of the Pentagon and State Department, as well 25 of the 28 NATO member nations, as Russia has attempted to hold sway in the country in the last several years.

The issue came up again Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services Hearing, when former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow testified that Russia “sponsored an armed coup d'etat in Montenegro last year to derail the country's accession to NATO.”

Vershbow said allowing Montenegro into the alliance would set an example “that countries that do their — do their homework, meet the criteria, contribute to stability in their neighborhood can become members of NATO, even if they don't bring a huge amount of defense capability to the alliance.”

McCain, who spoke to The Hill following the hearing, said Paul’s delay remains severely unhelpful “as far as the situation is concerned.”

Despite the frustration, one lawmaker said it is not all in Paul’s hands to block the treaty.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates More than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts Long-shot goal of nixing Electoral College picks up steam MORE (D-Conn.) suggested it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (R-Ky.) who was stalling the vote and called the idea that Paul alone was stopping Montenegro’s NATO treaty “fiction.”

“There’s no rule that says NATO enlargement needs 100 votes, so bring it up for a debate,” Murphy told The Hill. “McConnell doesn’t need to give [Paul] anything. He is stopping Montenegro from joining NATO because all he has to do is schedule a vote. It would take a day, maybe. Schedule a vote, get this done with, it’ll be 99 to 1.”

A spokesman for McConnell said the senator is supportive of Montenegro joining NATO and has not scheduled a debate on the issue because it requires all 100 senators to consent.

But Murphy disagreed.

“Every day that the Senate doesn’t act on adding Montenegro to NATO is a gift to the Russians,” Murphy said. “So schedule a vote and stop blaming it on Rand Paul.”