When a staffer texted Senator Mike Lee that his friend and colleague Rand Paul was mounting a talking filibuster to demand greater transparency on the administration’s drone policy, Lee did not hesitate. “I alerted my staff that I would need to be going to the floor,” he says in an interview.
Lee was the first of Paul’s Republican colleagues to formally join the filibuster, providing some relief by delivering a speech in support. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would soon follow, bearing news of the tremendous outpouring of public support on social media, saying “the Twitter-verse . . . has been exploding.”
It happened to be Cruz’s first time speaking on the Senate floor. So-called “maiden speeches” are typically well-choreographed affairs (Marco Rubio waited more than six months after being sworn in to deliver his), but Cruz wouldn’t have had it any other way. He says it was “a particular privilege” to have his first floor speech come “in the course of a filibuster defending the Constitution.” By the end of the 13-hour effort, Cruz and Lee had provided a combined two and a half hours of relief, far more than any of the 14 other senators who ultimately took part, according to National Journal.
Whether they like it or not, Americans of all political stripes should get used to hearing the names Paul, Lee, and Cruz, and almost always in close proximity to one another. This trio of young (average age 43), exceedingly skilled (especially by congressional standards), constitutionally oriented lawmakers has wasted no time making its mark on the 113th Congress.
At a time when the Republican party, and the conservative moment in general, is still reeling from an electoral drubbing in November and lacks coherent leadership, the Paul-Lee-Cruz contingent is filling that void in a manner that is as savvy in its tactics as it is bold in its ambitions.
All three have sought behind the scenes to develop an amicable relationship with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. The leader was notified well in advance of Paul’s intentions to mount a filibuster, and ultimately joined the effort himself on the Senate floor. That outreach appears to have paid off: Earlier this year, the three senators were awarded a number of coveted committee slots, and have won leadership’s backing on key proposals, such as their demand for a vote this week to delay federal funding for Obamacare.
At the same time, McConnell has courted his conservative colleagues — Paul in particular — in an effort to shore up his right flank as he prepares to defend his seat in 2014. McConnell has supported a number of Paul’s legislative efforts, and even hired Paul’s former campaign manager to run his own reelection. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, is also up in 2014, and Cruz’s presence has certainly pulled him to the right. “Now is the time to be pushing boundaries,” a conservative aide told NRO earlier this year, noting these electoral calculations.
However, as the same aide explained last week, Paul, Lee, and Cruz have been and will continue to be most effective by working within the system. “It can’t just be about getting the FreedomWorks of the world all ginned up, or trying to oust Boehner, or whatever,” the aide says. “From here on out, we’re trying to push a reform agenda in a more substantive way than just throwing apples.”
That means picking the right battles, something Paul especially has done well, demonstrating a political savvy that his more combative father never achieved, nor seemed to care about. Paul launched his filibuster in search of an answer to an extremely narrow question about the limits of executive power — whether the president can authorize the killing of American citizens, via drone, on American soil, even if they don’t represent a truly imminent threat. In doing so, he rallied Republicans to his cause even though they might otherwise be hesitant to support his broader, more libertarian, views on foreign policy.
“I think Rand demonstrated last week that when you stand for principle it can unify Republicans,” Cruz says. “The filibuster captivated a great many people across the country, who were heartened to see Republicans standing up, not rolling over, in the face of this administration.”
Constitutional conservatism may not be the sexiest strain in American politics, but these three are intent on bringing it back, and are uniquely suited to do it. Lee and Cruz are both lawyers deeply versed in the Constitution, as well as talented interrogators, capable of bringing out important points through relentless and logically vigorous questioning during committee hearings. Paul, an ophthalmologist by trade, is not a lawyer. But he clearly is no intellectual slouch on these issues either — as the son of Ron Paul, he was reared on the Constitution. “Rand Paul is the heart, Mike Lee is the head, he brings the intellectual, constitutional heft, and Ted Cruz is a little bit of both,” says a conservative aide.
The trio is also bound by the fact that not one of them was the “establishment choice” in his senatorial election. That has certainly emboldened their approach to politics, as well as strengthened their credibility within the party. “It’s a little hard to tell these guys you’ve gone too far, this is too extreme, because that’s what they were just told for a year and a half when they ran for Senate, and they won,” Norquist says.
That hasn’t stopped some Republicans from criticizing them. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham both loudly criticized Paul’s filibuster and its proponents, with McCain lamenting to the Huffington Post that “it’s always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone.”
GOP aides say privately that such internal tensions are real problems, and may require “an airing out” at some point, but also acknowledge that such debates are ultimately good for the party.
Such tensions could very well come to a head as the 2014 campaign season starts to heat up. Cruz was recently named vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Lee and Paul expect to play prominent roles as well. Congressional candidates have already been in touch with them about endorsements. “I very much want to find the next Ted Cruz,” Lee says, adding that he’ll be “thrilled” if several such candidates emerge in the 2014 cycle. (Both Lee and Paul were early supporters of Cruz’s underdog candidacy in 2012.)
In the meantime, the constitutionalist cadre plans to press on, confident that the American people will be receptive to their message. “My filibuster was the beginning of the fight to restore a healthy balance of powers,” Paul wrote in a Washington Post op-ed two days after his speech. “I believe the support I received this past week shows that Americans are looking for someone to really stand up and fight for them.”
“The procedural tools will vary depending on the circumstances, but I absolutely think Republicans need to continue to take strong stands to embrace liberty and defend the Constitution,” Cruz says. “We need to make that case directly to the people.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.