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Dana Milbank: Holding Congress hostage to personal ambition

Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Paul tried to block a House bill backed by the president that would limit the National Security Agency's collection of phone records.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Paul tried to block a House bill backed by the president that would limit the National Security Agency's collection of phone records. The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Mike Lee of Utah is part of a vanishing breed – Republican senators who are not running for president – and in this role he rose on the Senate floor Tuesday morning pleading for his ambitious colleagues to stop embarrassing the party.

“The American people deserve better than this,” he said, after an intra-party squabble between GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul and the Senate Republican leadership caused various counterterrorism efforts to cease. “If members of Congress, particularly Republican members of Congress, ever want to improve their standing among the American people, then we must abandon this habit of political gamesmanship.” Good luck with that.

The game is the Republican presidential primary, and no fewer than four senators are playing. They have discovered that tying the Senate in knots is a cheap and easy way of gaining attention. But a casualty of their game is governing: turning Congress, already barely functioning, into a legislative mess. It is no small irony that Republicans are running for president by proving that their party can’t govern.

In the past week, Paul has been the monkey wrench in the gears, protesting National Security Agency surveillance by delaying the (inevitable) passage of a successor to the Patriot Act and causing a suspension of wide-ranging efforts to thwart terrorists. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Paul of “a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation” – and that’s from a guy who has endorsed his fellow Kentuckian’s White House bid.

But McConnell has a whole set of monkey wrenches. There’s Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose attempt to force President Barack Obama to change his immigration policy by threatening to shut down Homeland Security operations caused a politically damaging standoff for Republicans. Candidate Cruz also tried to block confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general for the same reason.

Another candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, nearly derailed a bipartisan agreement on Iran legislation when he surprised McConnell by trying to force a vote on a poison-pill amendment requiring Iran to recognize Israel as a condition of any nuclear deal.

Cruz, Paul and Rubio, meanwhile, have been fighting to keep the Senate from reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, a target of conservatives, which will close at the end of the month without congressional action. On the other side of the issue is the fourth GOP presidential candidate in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who in turn blocked consideration of trade legislation until McConnell promised to have a vote on reauthorizing the bank.

At least Graham could not be blamed for anything that happened in the Senate on Tuesday: He was away, campaigning in New Hampshire.

The attention-grabbing efforts are nothing new. Paul held up Obama’s nominee to run the CIA in 2013 with a 13-hour filibuster, and he, Cruz and Rubio that year blocked the Senate from naming conferees to negotiate a budget with the House, while Graham blocked Obama nominees over the attack on Americans in Benghazi.

The difference now is these presidential wannabes are disrupting the designs of their own party – and exploiting a pledge by their leader, McConnell, to make the legislative process more freewheeling.

Paul, an opponent of the Patriot Act, not only failed in his effort to block the reauthorization, but he antagonized his colleagues so much that they refused to take up his (reasonable) amendments. Thirty-six hours after their standoff caused the counterterrorism programs to expire, McConnell was still complaining that Paul’s continued objections allowed “yet another day to elapse when everyone has already had a chance to say their piece … and when the need to move forward in a thoughtful but expeditious manner seemed perfectly clear. But this is the Senate.”

No, this is the Senate held hostage to presidential ambition.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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