Republicans have spent weeks hammering President Joe Biden as too slow in responding to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Enter Rand Paul.
The idiosyncratic GOP senator is undermining his own party’s message by single-handedly delaying a revocation of normal trade relations with Russia, thereby slowing efforts to further incapacitate Russia’s economy. Paul is refusing to allow a quick vote on the bill absent a deal to narrow presidential power to enact sanctions — an ask that leaders in both parties have spurned.
And as he’s done many times, Paul is not budging under growing bipartisan pressure.
“Somebody ought to read the bills, don’t you think?” Paul said in a brief interview, dismissing his colleagues’ posture on Ukraine as saber-rattling. “Most of this is symbolic.”
In many ways it’s vintage Paul: Stake out an outlier position and stick with it, disregarding the ensuing barrage of internal criticism. The Kentuckian was the only Republican senator to leave his name off a recent statement opposing a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Then there was late last year, when he was the face of opposition to additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system just as his party was criticizing Biden and Democrats for not supporting Israel enough. He also rose to prominence with his “stand with Rand” filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director, and he single-handedly caused a brief government shutdown in 2018 over his demands for an amendment.
But his latest rebellion comes at a perilous time, both for the world and for Republican messaging efforts. The GOP drumbeat of criticism casting Biden as slow and ineffective raged for weeks, and now a member of their own party is getting in the way of one of the few meaningful actions Congress can take in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s possible that passage of the trade bill, a top priority of Biden’s, could slip late into April at this point.
On Monday, Republicans aired long-building exasperation with Paul, with Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) simply throwing up his arms when asked if there was anything GOP leaders could do to move him. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who recently traveled to Poland, said Paul “has the right” to do it, but it’s “not helpful” for her party’s message.
And after a lengthy sigh, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) put it even more bluntly when asked about Paul: “It’s what we’ve come to expect.”
“There’s a constant mismatch between what Republicans say and do on Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), citing the large numbers of GOP lawmakers who opposed a wide-ranging spending bill that sent $14 billion in aid to Ukraine. “When they have a chance, over and over again Republicans are not voting for the things Ukraine needs.”
But some Republicans said it was simply a matter of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer prioritizing the trade bill and dismissed suggestions that Paul’s holdup undermined their messaging effort. Schumer could have allocated enough floor time to overcome Paul’s objections rather than counting on a fast-tracked process that requires unanimous support, they pointed out.
“We’ve been remarkably unified” as a party, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been one of the GOP’s leading voices on Ukraine. But, as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put it, “each individual senator is a free agent.”
Because of the way the chamber operates, scheduling a quick vote requires consent from all 100 senators. Schumer could schedule a separate vote on the legislation that wouldn’t require unanimous support, but it would tie up the Senate floor for as long as a week. And that could complicate Democrats’ efforts to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court before the forthcoming Easter recess.
“I don’t begrudge senators expressing themselves. I don’t think we ought to censor different points of view,” Cornyn said. “It’s just a matter of Sen. Schumer making it a priority … and jumping through all the hoops.”
What’s more, Republicans say they wouldn’t necessarily support moving the trade bill on its own, and they can’t pass both at the same time if the trade bill has to go through the typical floor process. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) spent days negotiating an agreement to move both the trade legislation and a bill banning Russian oil imports; he said trying to push through just the trade bill would break that agreement.
“It wouldn’t work,” Crapo said. He insisted that he was still discussing the situation with Paul.
Paul was the lone objector to speeding up the Senate’s consideration last week of a House-passed bill to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. The House bill cleared that chamber with 424 votes, and the eight lawmakers who opposed it — all Republicans — took issue with the bill’s reauthorization and expansion of the Global Magnitsky Act, a landmark 2016 law that allows the president to punish human-rights abusers worldwide.
Paul’s objections stem from similar concerns, and he has refused to agree to a quick vote unless the underlying legislation is changed. Last week, Schumer proposed that the Senate vote on a Paul-authored amendment to the bill in exchange for moving it quickly, but Paul rejected that offer.
The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) co-authored the Magnitsky Act, and it has enjoyed broad support from both parties over the years. But some conservatives have argued that the expansion approved by the House would allow the president to pursue sanctions based on political ideology or social agendas.
On Monday, Paul said Senate leaders “haven’t been too interested in a compromise” and reiterated his concerns that the Magnitsky Act provisions in the trade bill “have no restrictions or restraint. … There have to be some rules.”
“I’m not against the content of what they’re doing. I told them they could have it, if they define this,” he added.
Regardless of Paul’s push, however, his proposed changes are going nowhere — no matter how long it takes for the Senate to finish up the bill aimed at debilitating Russia’s economy.
“To think that he stopped the process on an amendment that lost in committee, 19-1,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It just tells you what can happen around here when people abuse the authority they have as senator.”