WASHINGTON (AP) — The last time Sen. Rand Paul was in the news for a scuffle, it involved a neighbor who allegedly tackled him in his yard over a lawn dispute. Thursday night, the Kentucky Republican took on the entire U.S. Senate — and rather than fisticuffs, his weapons of choice were obstinacy and the chamber’s weird rules.
With the clock ticking toward a midnight government shutdown, the 55-year-old lawmaker, ophthalmologist and veteran Senate pest made himself the sole obstacle to his chamber’s quick passage of legislation keeping federal agencies open.
The measure — which would shower the Pentagon and domestic programs with around $400 billion in new spending — was destined for overwhelming Senate approval, no matter what Paul did.
But the libertarian, failed 2016 GOP presidential contender and “wacko bird” — a moniker an angry Sen. John McCain gave him years ago — said “I object” when Senate leaders tried speeding a vote on the measure. Under the chamber’s rules, senators were looking at likely votes on the massive legislation beginning at 1 a.m. Friday.
“I didn’t come up here to be part of somebody’s club. I didn’t come up here to be liked,” said Paul, whose actions during a seven-year Senate career make it likely that many colleagues would silently answer, “Mission accomplished.”
“I’m in a club that says we need to keep the government open,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said on the Senate floor. With Paul standing just a yards away, he said the delays could continue “if we want to go for theater” but said the bill would pass notwithstanding.
Paul said he was demanding a vote on an amendment against breaking spending caps imposed by a bipartisan budget agreement in 2011. He complained the new budget accord would drive up federal deficits — but didn’t mention that he backed a $1.5 trillion tax bill in December that added red ink that was multiples larger than this week’s spending agreement.
“I ran for office because I was critical of President Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits,” he told the chamber’s leaders, who stood silently as he derailed their hopes for an early evening vote. “Now we have Republicans hand-in-hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits.” He said he could not “look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits.”
Paul said he was asking for a 15-minute debate and then a vote on his amendment, which was certain to lose. He said the 652-page measure was “printed at midnight” and was a bill that “no one has read.”
Paul’s fellow Kentuckian, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had no intention of caving in, knowing that would inevitably spark demands for amendment votes by other senators. Instead, they offered him a procedural vote, which Paul declined.
“It’s his right, of course, to vote against the bill,” McConnell said around 6 p.m. EST. “But I would argue that it’s time to vote.”
“We’re in risky territory here,” Schumer said, noting that Paul was flirting with a politically damaging government shutdown.
They got nowhere. Neither did No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas, who at 10 p.m. EST tried and failed to get Paul’s consent for votes before 1 a.m. Cornyn said Paul’s objections were “wasting everybody’s time” and said the Kentuckian would “effectively shut down the federal government for no real reason.”
Paul came to the Senate in 2009 after defeating a GOP primary opponent that McConnell had actively supported. The two men have made an effort to work together, and McConnell even backed Paul’s abortive 2016 presidential run.
“We get along fine,” Paul told reporters Thursday. Asked if McConnell was annoyed with him, Paul said: “Not that I know of. I think he takes policy disputes in hand.”
In the Senate, Paul’s libertarian streak has steered him into conflicts with his own party before. He’s opposed indefinite detention of terror suspects by the military, backed President Barack Obama’s restoration of relations with Cuba and waged an 11-hour filibuster in 2015 against renewing a law on government surveillance.
He’s advocated pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and once expressed his opposition in principle to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though he later said he opposed its repeal.
As for Paul’s famous lawn fight, federal prosecutors said last month they are seeking a 21-month prison sentence for the man they said tackled him in a dispute over a pile of brush. The man, who has said the attack wasn’t politically motivated, has been charged with assaulting a member of Congress.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.