‘Maybe by chatting over coffee together, we can just talk and see if we can get along.’ | AP Photo
Sen. Rand Paul: Peacemaker?
In the raging government shutdown fight, the Kentucky tea party favorite is quietly carving out a role as a bridge builder between the warring hard-line conservative faction and establishment wings of his party. And he’s also tossing out ideas aimed at bringing Democrats along in the process.
Paul pitched a “clean” one-to-two week stop-gap measure to give the parties time to iron out their differences while keeping the government afloat. He has suggested bicameral negotiations to find a middle-ground between the demands of conservatives to defund Obamacare and Democratic insistence that they wouldn’t touch the law. And he’s now making a new pitch: Coffee.
In a letter to all senators sent Wednesday afternoon, Paul called for a bipartisan coffee meeting on the Capitol steps Thursday morning to “alleviate this tension and partisanship.”
“Tension is at an all-time high here at the Capitol,” Paul said in the letter, which was provided to POLITICO. “We are all anxious about the shutdown and had to send the bulk of our staff home — worried about their future. … Maybe by chatting over coffee together, we can just talk and see if we can get along.”
Paul’s coffee announcement may amount to little more than optics in what has become an extended round of theatrics on Capitol Hill, with no resolution to the government shutdown in sight. But it’s the latest example of how the potential 2016 presidential hopeful is methodically seeking to broaden his appeal from 2010, when he ran for the Senate on a hard-right tea party platform with a devoted libertarian following.
Now, he’s building close ties to party leaders like Mitch McConnell — viewed skeptically by some conservative activists — while trying to keep up his appeal among the tea party right.
In short, he’s no Ted Cruz.
“Anything a senator can do to create political space for our House colleagues is a good thing,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked about the Paul efforts.
Cruz has become a hero on the right for vehemently attacking his Senate GOP colleagues for refusing to back his tactic to threaten a government shutdown if Democrats don’t defund Obamacare — alienating himself from Republican senators in the process.
Paul sided with Cruz in his anti-Obamacare effort, even signing a letter backing the defunding tactic and appearing with the Texas Republican for a portion of his 21-hour speech attacking Obamacare last week. But with Republican senators attacking the Cruz tactic as fruitless and politically damaging, Paul has maintained a lower profile. Paul has avoided becoming the face of the effort, eschewing direct confrontations with his colleagues — and even expressing concern about a government shutdown.
When asked why he was staying out of the spotlight just days before federal agencies closed, Paul responded: “I think it’s not a good idea to shut down the government.” Instead, he said it made more sense for House-Senate conference to resolve the Obamacare dispute to “split the difference.”
“That’s the way it really should work,” he said.
A day after Cruz’s marathon speech, Paul took to the Senate floor to engage in an extended colloquy with McConnell where the two men both railed about the ills of Obamacare, giving political cover to the GOP leader who opposed the Cruz effort to filibuster a government funding bill.
By keeping his foot in both camps, Paul has emerged as a key asset for his Kentucky colleague, McConnell, who can’t afford to undercut House Republicans in the shutdown fight without provoking a backlash from the right.
That could make Paul’s role increasingly critical if the shutdown grows politically unsustainable for the GOP and Senate Republicans begin to look for a way out of the crisis. On the Senate floor in recent days, Paul and McConnell have been seen talking extensively. And Paul’s suggestion for a short-term stop-gap measure on Monday came on the same day McConnell quietly sought to gauge support for a one-week plan.
But aides to the two Kentuckians deny they are coordinating their tactics, saying Paul is merely expressing his opinions about the best way forward.
While many Senate Republicans opposed the Cruz and House GOP tactics, many are now keeping their powder dry given that the government has shut down and there’s no clear resolution in sight. In interviews on Wednesday, Senate Republicans said they were not at that point yet of pressuring their House Republicans to buckle, saying that their best hope was to stay unified behind House Speaker John Boehner in the high-stakes battle.
“We’re at our best when we’re united,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).