Rand Paul and John McCain Go to War Over ISIS Vote

How a “nice little water bill” sparked a battle between a 2016 White House hopeful and the GOP’s top hawk.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 13: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) (L) and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) listen during a news conference on Capitol Hill to introduce a Republican jobs proposal to compete with that put forward by President Obama on October 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. The legislation targets the tax code, spending, and regulation in an attempt to grow the private sector. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
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Alex Brown
Dec. 4, 2014, 2:38 p.m.

A high-pro­file clash of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors erup­ted Thursday after Sen. Rand Paul made a sur­prise, last-minute ef­fort to force a vote on a de­clar­a­tion of war against the Is­lam­ic State.

The battle pit­ted Paul, a likely pres­id­en­tial con­tender who is wary of for­eign en­tan­gle­ments, against Sen. John Mc­Cain, a past Re­pub­lic­an White House nom­in­ee who re­mains his party’s highest-pro­file de­fense hawk. The dis­pute between the up­start and the Old Bull was as much about re­spect for Sen­ate pro­ced­ure and tra­di­tion as it was about the deep for­eign policy dif­fer­ences that di­vide the two men.

Paul’s plan was to tie his pro­pos­al to an ob­scure wa­ter bill dur­ing a pro­ced­ur­al lame-duck meet­ing of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. Re­pub­lic­ans on the com­mit­tee were out­raged, say­ing the move was a hasty and ill-con­ceived meth­od to ad­dress­ing a weighty is­sue.

“It was the most bizarre meet­ing of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee that I have ever at­ten­ded in my life or ever ex­pec­ted to at­tend,” Mc­Cain said. “A wa­ter bill, a nice little wa­ter bill, un­con­tro­ver­sial. “¦ It was ludicrous. It’s a liv­ing, breath­ing ar­gu­ment against lame-duck ses­sions.”

For Paul, the un­usu­al move was one of ne­ces­sity. He be­lieves it’s im­per­at­ive for Con­gress to weigh in on the IS­IS con­flict be­fore it leaves town—even if it takes a rushed vote on an un­re­lated bill to get it done. The Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an has cul­tiv­ated a repu­ta­tion for ab­so­lute fealty to the Con­sti­tu­tion, and he be­lieves the White House cur­rently lacks the au­thor­ity to en­gage the ter­ror­ist state without con­gres­sion­al go-ahead. Fail­ing to act, he said, is to be com­pli­cit in ex­ec­ut­ive over­reach if and when the ad­min­is­tra­tion puts Amer­ic­an forces in­to the fight.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, like Sen. Marco Ru­bio, a fel­low 2016 con­tender, think that con­cern is over­blown. “I don’t think [an Au­thor­iz­a­tion of Mil­it­ary Force] is leg­ally ne­ces­sary,” he said. “I think that any time we act with Con­gress’s ap­prov­al of the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions, it makes it stronger. But leg­ally, I think he has the right to pur­sue emer­ging threats to the U.S., and ISIL is cer­tainly that.”

Ru­bio said dur­ing Thursday’s meet­ing that he re­cog­nizes the wa­ter bill is “the last train leav­ing the sta­tion” dur­ing the lame duck, but he cri­ti­cized at­tempts to rush it through. “This is­sue de­serves not just these hear­ings, but a fur­ther de­bate,” he said. He also sought to dis­tin­guish him­self from his likely GOP primary op­pon­ent on policy, say­ing his pro­posed re­stric­tions on ground troops and a one-year timeline hand­cuff the White House. “We should au­thor­ize the pres­id­ent to win,” he said.

After much hand-wringing by Re­pub­lic­ans—in­clud­ing a plea from vis­ibly agit­ated rank­ing mem­ber Bob Cork­er—Paul and Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez agreed to push the pro­pos­al back to a stand-alone vote next week, fol­low­ing a Monday hear­ing on the is­sue in which Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry may be able to provide testi­mony (sen­at­ors and the State De­part­ment were still un­clear wheth­er Kerry’s sched­ule will al­low him to show up).

But the delay did little to al­lay the con­cerns of Paul’s GOP col­leagues. “I still think it’s go­ing to be too rushed,” Cork­er said. No one—in­clud­ing Paul—be­lieves passing the bill through For­eign Re­la­tions will be enough to get it to the Sen­ate floor dur­ing the lame duck. Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship in­dic­ated that it is highly un­likely the full Sen­ate will have time to con­sider the AUMF dur­ing the last few days of the ses­sion.

Mc­Cain’s word­ing was a little stronger. “There’s not a snow­ball’s chance in Gila Bend, Ari­zona, I prom­ise you, to get an AUMF in this ses­sion of Con­gress,” he said, pre­dict­ing that next week’s hear­ing will be “as funny as a Sat­urday Night Live skit.”

The dis­pute il­lus­trates a fun­da­ment­al di­vide between the fast-rising Paul and the vet­er­an Mc­Cain. Mc­Cain cited pre­ced­ent, say­ing an AUMF has al­ways ori­gin­ated from the White House. Cork­er and oth­ers re­peated this, say­ing the onus is on the pres­id­ent to lay out a strategy for Con­gress to weigh. Paul, along with Demo­crat­ic al­lies like Sen. Tim Kaine, sees re­ly­ing on past meth­ods as prob­lem­at­ic (his bill re­peals two pre­vi­ous AUMFs) and ar­gues Con­gress should re­as­sert its policy-set­ting role on over­seas con­flicts.

“The only thing worse than do­ing it this way [via a wa­ter bill] “¦ is to al­low an­oth­er month or two months of uni­lat­er­al war without Con­gress say­ing a mum­bling word about it,” Kaine said dur­ing the hear­ing. Demo­crats, all of whom are ex­pec­ted to sup­port Paul’s pro­pos­al, agreed. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen called the pro­cess “lousy,” and Sen. Dick Durbin said he was “totally con­flic­ted”—but all agreed the Sen­ate could not let the lame duck go by without ad­dress­ing the is­sue.

Re­pub­lic­ans were not swayed. “Why would you not want to at least un­der­stand what our strategy is go­ing to be?” Cork­er said. “It’s al­most a scene out of May­berry.” Mc­Cain took Paul’s move as an op­por­tun­ity to pum­mel the White House as well. “There is no [ad­min­is­tra­tion] pro­pos­al,” he said. “Why is there no pro­pos­al? They have no strategy.”

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