Politics & Government

First Mitch McConnell earned ire of 9/11 first responders, now it’s Rand Paul

A second Kentucky Republican senator is being pilloried for standing in the way of legislation to provide health benefits to 9/11 first responders grappling with lingering illnesses from the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Weeks after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with frustrated first responders and pledged to give the bill a Senate vote before August recess, his Kentucky counterpart, Sen. Rand Paul, on Wednesday halted speedy approval of the bill, citing worries about costs.

“It has long been my feeling that we need to address our massive debt in the country,” Paul said on the Senate floor, calling for any new spending to be matched by spending cuts. “We need to at the very least have this debate.”

The move earned him a swift rebuke on the floor from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who said she was “deeply disappointed” and accused Paul of playing “political games.”

Paul, who noted the country already faces a $22 trillion debt, later tweeted that he hadn’t blocked the $10.2 billion bill, but was “simply asking for a vote on an amendment to offset the cost.”

Under Senate rules, any senator can propose that a bill be passed without an official floor vote, but one senator can block the request. The bill could still be brought to the floor for a full vote and Gillibrand told reporters she has the votes to pass it. The legislation cleared the House with a 402 to 12 vote.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, took to the Senate floor to blast Paul, noting that fiscal conservatives in the House had voted for it.

“I would say to my friend from Kentucky, throughout the history of America, when our young men and women .. volunteered in the armed services and risked their lives for our freedom, we came back and gave them healthcare,” Schumer said. “Why are these people any different?

Hours earlier, it was McConnell who took rare public umbrage with Paul, accusing his Kentucky Republican colleague of “hurting American companies for the better part of a decade” by waging a “crusade” against a series of tax treaties.

McConnell, who pushed the tax measures to a vote despite Paul’s objections, never mentioned Paul by name in remarks on the Senate floor, instead referring to “one colleague of ours.” But he made it clear he was talking about Paul as he accused him of peddling an “off the wall story that failed to persuade anyone” and has done nothing but hurt American businesses.

“I’m not quite sure what all these years of heel-dragging will have accomplished, except impose unnecessary taxes on Kentucky employers and deferring investment in the U.S.“ McConnell said.

A Paul spokeswoman punched back at McConnell saying the majority leader “sat” on the treaties for years and “didn’t lift a finger to pass them or to help Senator Paul add privacy protections for Americans.”

Spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said McConnell also voted against a Paul amendment to make the treaties retroactive, which she says would have saved at least one Kentucky company $10 million.

“The delay in getting these treaties lies squarely at the feet of Mitch McConnell,” Cooper said in a statement.

Paul has said he has sought to ensure that the tax treaties with Spain, Switzerland, Japan and Luxembourg provide basic due process protections for Americans. He sought earlier in the week to change language in the treaties that would narrow requests for sharing a taxpayer’s deposit account information.

“Washington seems to find it hard to believe it is possible to enforce the law while at the same time taking Americans’ privacy seriously,” Paul said last month as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up the treaties. “The benefits of these treaties simply do not outweigh the potential for abuse. The reservations I offered would have put Americans’ interests first without preventing the treaties from moving forward.”

But McConnell charged that both the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as his Senate colleagues have listened to Paul’s concerns for years and that Paul has long rejected “reasonable counter-offers and accommodations.”

Paul, McConnell said, “was unable to persuade anybody. All that time, and didn’t persuade anybody.”

McConnell said that Paul has been unable to make his case because the changes he demanded would not have solved a problem and would have forced negotiators to re-open the treaties.

While Paul was blocking the treaties, McConnell said, “everybody else was actually listening to the job creators who have been pleading for years for us to get this millstone off their necks.”

It’s not the first, and unlikely to be the last, time that McConnell and Paul have not seen eye to eye. Although they represent the same state, often vote the same way, and share the same conservative philosophy, they are frequently at odds.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is a consensus-builder who resists advancing legislation that does not have the votes to pass. Paul doesn’t mind going it alone. McConnell will avoid ideological conflict for the sake of collegiality. Paul doesn’t mind tying up the Senate by pressing his views.

The taciturn McConnell is also a loyalist to his party and the Senate. The libertarian-leaning Paul has cultivated a reputation as a free agent who seemingly relishes the opportunity to challenge the party.

McConnell seemingly addressed the conflict on the floor, noting he was a “patient man, but my patience is not inexhaustible.”

After Paul on “multiple occasions” blocked passage of the treaties, McConnell said he consulted with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and decided that he could proceed with the vote.

He said his decision hadn’t shut Paul out of the process, noting he was able to offer amendments that McConnell said “went nowhere.”

And he said: “Nine years is long enough. In fact, it’s far too long, too long for our U.S. businesses to have been either paying needless double taxes or deferring huge amounts of money in dividend payments that could otherwise have been invested right here at home. “

The treaties all cleared the Senate with overwhelming support. Only Paul and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, voted against all four. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, joined the two Republicans to vote against the treaty with Luxembourg.

Cristobal Fuentes, the chief executive officer of North American Stainless, one of several Kentucky companies that McConnell said had been adversely affected by the failure to pass the treaties, hailed the majority leader for pressing ahead.

“If it had not been for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his tireless efforts I firmly believe this day would never have come,” said Fuentes, who said the delay resulted in double taxation for American companies with foreign investors, costing companies like Stainless, “tens of millions of dollars over the years.”