Rand Paul is keeping everyone in suspense yet again.
The junior Kentucky senator is refusing to rule out forcing another brief government shutdown over his protests of the $1.3 trillion spending bill, which he has called “budget-busting” and a return to “Obama spending and trillion dollar deficits.” Fellow senators are trying desperately to persuade him to let the Senate vote on the spending bill on Thursday and avoid unnecessarily keeping them in town on Friday and into the weekend.
Paul was noncommittal on Thursday as he walked into a Republican caucus lunch. He said he had more than 2,000 pages of the 2,200-page bill left to get through before he’ll decide how to proceed.
“I’m on page 56 right now, and so I’ve got a few more pages to read. I don’t have any other comment,” Paul said.
Under Senate rules, all 100 senators must agree to hold a vote before the Friday night shutdown deadline. But as of now, they don’t have it. The House cleared the massive spending measure on Thursday.
“It’s just a question of if he delays the vote. It doesn’t change anything,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said of Paul. “I don’t think anybody knows and I don’t think his staff knows … it’s his right and his prerogative if he wants to do it.”
“It’s fair to say that it’s fine to make a statement,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who dislikes the spending increases in the bill but is eager to vote on it. “There’s no benefit to waiting at this point. We should go ahead and get it done.”
The will-he-or-won’t-he cause a momentary shutdown is a familiar play from Paul. He loves using Senate rules to draw attention to his causes — even if it means agitating the people he goes to work with every day.
He has filibustered nominees, briefly caused a surveillance program to lapse and, in February, refused to give GOP leaders consent to vote on a funding bill before the funding deadline. The latter protest, against a bipartisan spending deal that dramatically increased spending, caused a government shutdown for several hours.
He's also irked GOP leaders by opposing President Donald Trump's nominees to lead the State Department and CIA this spring. That stand could allow Democrats to block the president’s picks.
Beyond simply annoying other senators, another protest by Paul could disrupt trips some of them who are planning to take overseas as part of congressional delegations. There are multiple so-called “CODELs“ scheduled to leave on Thursday night, and they are making contingency plans now in case Paul forces the Senate to stay in on Friday, according to a Republican senator.
“I would hope that he can vote against what he doesn’t like. That’s what I do,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the soon-to-be Appropriations Committee chairman. “I’m sure he sees a purpose, an outlier, a protest. But there are a lot of ways to manifest that.”
There was no concerted effort at the Republican lunch Thursday to persuade Paul to back down, attendees said. Instead GOP senators concentrated on paying tribute to retiring Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
Some Republicans hope reporters can shame Paul into giving in.
“We’re leaving that to y’all,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters. “Whatever rights he has, he will decide what’s the best use of them. I know how the movie ends. No matter what he does we’re going to pass this bill and the military is going to get a pay raise.”
Some senators believe that Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) also must be convinced to allow a quick vote. Kennedy is among a bloc of conservatives who loathe the closed process used to write the bill in leaders’ offices, as well as the increase in spending that will increase the deficit.
But in an interview, he sounded less dug-in than Paul.
“I don’t know. Probably not,” Kennedy said, when asked whether he will hold up the bill. “They probably have the votes [to pass it]. But I can tell you this: This is the best effort of Congress to borrow and spend us into prosperity. And I’m not going to be a part of it.”
GOP leaders are hoping that the looming recess — and certainty that the bill will pass, it’s just a matter of when — will be enough to get Paul not to gum up the works again.
“There are some unhappy folks, understandably. And they should be, the way this stuff gets done,” Thune said. “But in the end you realize we’ve got to fund the government and it’s kind of an inevitability.”