WASHINGTON — Invoking legendary 19th century Senator Henry Clay and the abolitionist movement, freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered his first Senate floor speech Wednesday to signal that he and the tea party are willing to compromise with opponents on the federal debt and spending cuts.
But their compromise would be narrowly drawn.
"Many ask will the tea party compromise? Can the tea party work with others to find a solution?" Paul said in his brief address. "The answer is, of course, there must be dialogue and ultimately compromise, but compromise must occur on where we cut spending."
The perceived inflexibility of tea party devotees combined with their popularity in last November's elections complicates the ability of Republican leaders in Congress to strike deals with Democrats, lest they face challenges from the right in their next elections. Paul's stress that tea party leaders recognize the necessity of compromise offers hope of bipartisan agreements.
But Paul, a tea party favorite who catapulted onto the national scene after defeating an establishment Republican candidate in Kentucky's senate primary last year, warned that he isn't interested in compromise for compromise sake.
Some tea party members also have signaled that they're not in a compromising mood over spending cuts or raising the federal government's $14.3 trillion debt limit, which Congress must decide on by March 31.
At the inaugural meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus last week, some tea party supporters pleaded with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to introduce legislation to cut $1.4 trillion from government spending each year to quickly reduce the debt. Paul himself has introduced a bill to cut $500 billion per year by eliminating some agencies and programs and consolidating others.
Paul said he agonized over compromise questions and turned for guidance from the lessons of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay — who was nicknamed "The Great Compromiser" during his long political career in the Senate and the House of Representatives during the first half of the 19th Century.
In hopes of avoiding a civil war, Clay helped forge compromises in 1820 and 1850 that helped keep slavery alive, Paul said.
"Is compromise the noble position? Is compromise a sign of enlightenment? Will compromise allow us to avoid the looming debt crisis?" said Paul, who sits at Clay's desk in the Senate chamber. "Henry Clay's life is at best a mixed message."
Instead, Paul said, he looks to Cassius Clay, Frederick Douglass and others in the anti-slavery movement as inspirations because "they said slavery is wrong and they would not compromise."
For Paul to describe abolitionist-movement participants as "heroes" in his first floor speech was notable. He stirred controversy shortly after his primary victory when he said that, based on his belief in limited government, private businesses shouldn't be forced to abide by civil rights laws even though he personally abhors racial discrimination.
After the uproar, Paul stressed that he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires private businesses not to discriminate on the basis of race, and wouldn't support its repeal.
"Now, today we have no issues, no moral issues that have equivalency with the issue of slavery, yet we do face a fiscal nightmare, potentially a debt crisis in our country," he said Wednesday.
Paul said that Democrats, Republicans and tea party supporters could find common ground by agreeing to cut spending — with no political sacred cows.
"The compromise that we as conservatives must acknowledge is that we can cut some money from the military," he said. "The other side, the liberals, also must compromise that they can cut some money from domestic spending."
Paul is only the second Senate freshman to speak on the floor so far in the new 112th Congress. It earlier times, Senate freshmen rarely got such an opportunity to speak, especially early in a session. But that tradition has faded in recent years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted the mounting anticipation for Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to have his moment.
"As I announced earlier, Congressman (sic) Paul is going to give his maiden speech," Reid said on the Senate floor. "I'm sure that his father is looking on through the magic of all the new communications we have to listen to his son give a speech in the United States Senate."
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