WASHINGTON — The moment was classic Rand Paul.
The freshman Republican senator from Kentucky on Tuesday took on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — a highly decorated veteran and former presidential candidate — over a provision in the defense authorization bill that would deny civilian trials to American terrorism suspects.
Paul's impassioned opposition to the provision put him on the same side as the White House and many Democrats and at odds with many Republicans, including his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"There is one thing and one thing only protecting innocent Americans from being detained at will at the hands of a too-powerful state — our Constitution and the checks we put on government power," the libertarian-leaning Paul said in a speech on the Senate floor.
McCain, who is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, countered that Paul didn't fully understand the threat of terrorism on American soil.
"Facts are stubborn things," McCain said repeatedly on the floor. "If the senator from Kentucky wants to have a situation prevail where people who are released go back into the fight to kill Americans, he is entitled to his opinion."
Although Paul's attempt to strip the provision ultimately failed — the fate of many of his similar stands over the past year — he was successful in raising the issue's profile. After a series of protracted negotiations, the Senate passed the $662 billion Pentagon funding bill Thursday night.
In the year since Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, rode a tea party-backed wave to clinch a surprise victory in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, the political newcomer has become one of the movement's most visible faces. In his numerous appearances on network news programs, he has come to symbolize the conservative dissatisfaction that rattled Republican ranks and whittled the moderate Blue Dog Democrats' corps through the tea party's broad gains in the House of Representatives in the November 2010 elections.
Critics, such as progressive and environmental groups, say Paul is a disruptive ideologue.
"We feel that overall he's been a destructive force when it comes to the environment," David Goldston, a director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of Paul's ongoing pushback against several Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Supporters say Paul's blend of work ethic and theatrics makes him an effective lawmaker.
"To be an effective advocate you have to be both a workhorse and a show horse. Whether on Fox (News) or on the floor, Rand has proven he can be both," said Trygve Olson, a GOP political consultant who served as the National Republican Senatorial Committee's field consultant to the Kentucky Senate race and now works for the presidential campaign of Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
As of this week, Rand Paul has either sponsored or co-sponsored 135 pieces of legislation, a record that outstrips many of his freshman Senate colleagues. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington earlier this year, McConnell praised Paul, calling him "one of the great freshman conservatives," and said the newly elected senator was "already taking strong, principled stands in the Senate."
Paul acknowledges that many of those stands failed to result in passed legislation. However, he prides himself on throwing up procedural roadblocks to force the Senate to focus on issues he champions — such as his successful requirement for testing older pipelines as part of a pipeline safety bill, or his vocal opposition to President Barack Obama's intervention in the Libyan civil war.
"We lost, but without me being here I don't think it would have come up," Paul said in an interview.
In May, Paul's one-man showdown over extending the Patriot Act delayed a Senate vote and forced Obama to use a so-called "autopen" to sign an extension from France, where he was attending a G-8 summit.
In July, Paul blocked a two-year extension of FBI Director Robert Mueller's term until Mueller answered questions on how two Iraqi nationals — one with a history of terrorism — gained refugee status and lived for several years in Bowling Green, Ky. The move could have forced Mueller to step down temporarily in anticipation of his term ending just before Labor Day; however, Paul released the hold following a private meeting with Mueller.
In October, Paul temporarily blocked a measure to provide $36 million in benefits for elderly and disabled refugees, citing concerns the money could be used to aid terrorists like the ones who were arrested in his hometown.
This type of approach has been tried with varying degrees of success by previous generations of maverick lawmakers, and it is not without its political perils.
"An individual in the Senate, if he or she wants to be the skunk in the garden party, can drive your colleagues to distraction because the whole thing operates on unanimous consent. If you're willing to accept that then you can have some role to play," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "The second part of that role is that you can get significant public attention drawn to an issue you want highlighted."
Paul said his split with many in his party on allowing the military to indefinitely imprison without trial U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism reflects his willingness to cross party lines on issues he views as important. Earlier this fall, Paul also discussed the state of Kentucky's deteriorating bridges with President Obama during a plane ride together on Air Force One.
He also has repeatedly asked, with no success, to be invited to the weekly Democratic Caucus luncheon to speak about his ideas on trimming the debt.
"It goes against the narrative so many people have about the tea party that we are unwilling to talk to the other side," Paul said. "It shows I don't see issues in a purely partisan way; I see what's right but also what's constitutional."
Paul, and his tea party backed-congressional colleagues in the House and Senate, also have helped shift Republicans on Capitol Hill a little more to the right, said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and GOP consultant who co-wrote a book with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
"I think he's been a pretty effective first-term senator," Woodard said. "He has been able to keep his base and widen his appeal to other areas of the Republican Party."
Paul worked with McConnell on several pieces of legislation this year. Among their more high-profile joint efforts was one designed to force the Environmental Protection Agency to decide more quickly whether to approve permits that coal mines need to operate under the Clean Water Act.
The senators also have a measure that would empower the Department of Energy to re-enrich some 40,000 cylinders of depleted uranium at Kentucky's Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, sell it and use the money to help with environmental cleanup.
Tea party groups may herald Paul as a folk hero, but the nation is souring on the broader movement.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, since the 2010 mid-term elections, the tea party not only has lost support nationwide, but also in the congressional districts represented by members of the House Tea Party Caucus.
According to the poll, which was conducted in November, 27 percent of Americans disagree with the tea party's stances while 20 percent support the movement's agenda.
This year, the image of the Republican Party has declined even more sharply in these GOP-controlled districts than across the country at large. Currently, 41 percent of those living in those districts say they have a favorable opinion of the GOP, while 48 percent say they have an unfavorable view.
Paul says the tea party is definitely not on the wane and has left its mark on Congress.
"We got rid of earmarks," Paul said. "Every legislative debate since then we're talking about offsets. There have been a lot of changes in the way things are done."
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