By Alexander Bolton - 03-15-17 06:00 AM EDT
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has replaced Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as the prime conservative agitator in Congress.
Paul is waging a public relations war against the House Republican healthcare reform legislation in the hope that he can bring Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the measure's champion, to the negotiating table.
The Kentucky senator is betting that if he can convince a relatively small group of House conservatives to vote against the legislation, it will force House GOP leaders to back away from what he calls " ObamaCare lite."
"There's really no negotiating going on. Ryan is giving up nothing until he determines he doesn't have enough votes. If we get to the point where he doesn't have enough votes, then he'll negotiate," he told The Hill in an interview Tuesday.
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees voted unanimously last week to advance the healthcare measure.
But Paul is hoping he can convince some Republicans on the House Budget Committee, which includes conservatives Reps. Dave Brat (Va.), Gary Palmer (Ala.) and Mark Sanford (S.C.), to buck the leadership when the panel marks up the bill on Thursday.
Brat unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in 2014, Palmer voted to oust former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Sanford is the sponsor of the House companion version of Paul's healthcare reform bill.
All three are also members of the House Freedom Caucus, a coalition of far-right Republicans. Paul appeared with Brat, Sanford and other Freedom Caucus members last week at a press conference panning the House GOP measure.
"If they pass it unanimously out of the Budget Committee, my guess is there's not going to be much compromise," Paul said, noting that he is in contact with the leaders of the Freedom Caucus on a "daily" basis.
He threw down the gauntlet Sunday when he appeared opposite Ryan on CBS's "Face the Nation" to urge House Republicans to vote against the rule that would bring the healthcare reform bill to the floor.
The audacious move surprised some lawmakers because voting on the rule, which sets the terms for debating and amending a measure, is viewed as a key test of loyalty to House leadership, which expects complete unity on such procedural steps. It's all the more galling for the House GOP leadership that it's a senator who's playing hardball on their turf.
It's a flashback to 2013, when Cruz, then a first-year senator, wielded his relationships with House conservatives to pressure GOP leaders to hold up a must-pass government funding bill to protest the implementation of ObamaCare.
"That's what Cruz did a few years ago," said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to candidly comment on Paul's tactics.
Just as Cruz was a major headache for Boehner during the ObamaCare standoff of 2013 - which resulted in a 16-day government shutdown - Paul is becoming a thorn in Ryan's side.
Ryan appeared annoyed after Paul made a highly publicized foray to the House side of the Capitol to demand leaders show him what he called their "secret" draft of the healthcare reform bill. He underscored his quest for government transparency by bringing along his own small copying machine so he could distribute the details to fellow lawmakers who were kept in the dark.
Ryan did not seem amused.
"I like Rand, but I think he's looking for a publicity stunt here," Ryan told Fox News's Bret Baier. "The things he described are just not accurate."
Paul fired back by suggesting that Ryan had given President Trump a misleading sense of what the House bill really does - which he says falls far short of repealing ObamaCare.
"I don't think it makes any sense and I think he's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the president," Paul told Breitbart News.
Some Republicans, however, question if anyone other than the media is listening to Paul.
"What evidence do you have that anyone is following his lead? Few seem to be citing his hypocritical tax credit argument," said a GOP aide.
Trump appears to be taking Paul seriously. He spoke on the phone with the senator last week, and his staff invited him over to the White House for a meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Paul is entering a new phase of his political career. In the fall of 2014, he was called the "most interesting man in politics" by Time magazine and was seen as a leading contender for the GOP 2016 nomination. But his presidential campaign faltered, and he bowed out of the race after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
It remains to be seen how Paul will work with his GOP colleagues in the upper chamber, especially with his Kentucky counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. After a rocky start, Paul and McConnell have worked well together over the last several years. Paul endorsed McConnell in his 2014 reelection bid, and the majority leader endorsed Paul for president.
Senate Republican leaders are optimistic they can still convince Paul to vote for the ObamaCare replacement legislation after it's amended on the Senate floor.
"I hope so. The president says he's open to negotiations," noted Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) when asked about Paul.
Paul and two of his House allies - Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) - appeared on three Sunday morning talk shows this weekend to criticize the House bill.
On CBS's "Face the Nation," Paul denounced Ryan's bill as a bailout for insurance companies that would do nothing to fix the fundamental problem of rising premiums.
He will continue the pressure on GOP leaders by joining members of the House Freedom Caucus in the Upper Senate Park on Wednesday to launch a monthlong mobilization against the House bill organized by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group.
Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), a conservative who has worked closely with Paul in recent weeks, will also attend the rally.
When Cruz led conservatives in 2013 to pressure Boehner to only pass government funding bills that halted the implementation of ObamaCare, GOP colleagues accused him of grandstanding to gain publicity ahead of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Many Republican senators at the time grumbled that Cruz wasn't being a team player and was making their party look bad by demanding a concession that President Obama was never going to agree to.
Cruz's bare-knuckled tactics severely damaged his relationship with McConnell and Boehner, who last year called Cruz "a miserable son of a b----" and "Lucifer in the flesh."
Similarly, this year some Republicans suspect Paul is trying to grab the national spotlight after his 2016 presidential campaign fizzled.
"How else can he get on 'Morning Joe'? " joked a Republican senator.
Paul, however, says he is motivated by principle, not personal gain. He has made an effort to tout the Freedom Caucus, not himself, as essential to the debate.
"The House Freedom Caucus has really, I think, turned out to be the big player in this," he said. "If the House Freedom Caucus sticks together, they will get a seat at the table."
While Cruz is aligned with Paul, he is taking a much softer approach, trying to work more collaboratively with Trump and Republican leaders in both chambers. He is eschewing the confrontational tactics of the 2013 ObamaCare debate that alienated many of his Republican colleagues.
Cruz says the circumstances are now different with Trump in the White House. When Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate, Cruz saw himself in the role of member of the loyal opposition.
Now that Republicans have the White House, Cruz thinks he can be more effective negotiating with party leaders instead of trying to twist arms by applying pressure through the House Freedom Caucus.
Paul, however, argues the stakes are much higher now than they were in 2013.
"This is the first time we really had a fight over ObamaCare," he said. "This is the only really significant fight, and this is why it's so important this time around."
"Then, I don't think we could have stopped it because Obama was in the White House," he added. "If conservatives hang together now, we actually can win."