The standoff between Rand Paul and the Senate leadership over the Kentucky lawmaker's demand for a vote cutting off aid to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan is threatening to derail the confirmations of new ambassadors to Iraq and Pakistan before the upper chamber leaves town.
Paul stopped all work on the Senate floor today over his demand for a vote on two amendments he is proposing to the veterans' jobs bill under consideration.
One amendment would withhold all U.S. aid to Pakistan until the Pakistani government releases Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced in June to 33 years in jail for treason.
The second would prohibit aid to Libya and Egypt until anyone involved in this week's attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts was arrested and transferred to U.S. custody.
Paul is objecting to unanimous consent on all Senate business until he gets his way, dragging out the process of taking votes for days.
Late Thursday evening Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that the Senate would not stay in session all weekend due to the stalemate, as many on Capitol Hill feared. The Senate will come back Sept. 19 to an enormous pile of urgent business, including funding the government, before its planned adjournment the following weekend.
The Democratic leadership has no intention of allowing a vote on Paul's amendments, partially because lawmakers don't want to be put in the position of voting for the aid so close to the election. If the amendments actually passed, moreover, the sudden impact for America's foreign policy would create huge problems for the Obama administration as it struggles to tamp down spiraling unrest in the broader Middle East.
But if Paul doesn't get his vote, he intends to maintain his existing hold on the nomination of Richard Olson be the U.S. envoy in Islamabad and work to thwart the building effort to quickly confirm Robert Stephen Beecroft as the new ambassador to Baghdad.
"We are continuing our hold on the ambassador until we are allowed time and debate on a Senate vote to cut U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan," Paul's Communications Director Moira Bagley told The Cable today.
The Beecroft nomination was just announced this week, and is therefore not in front of the full Senate yet, but Bagley said that Paul is prepared to use his prerogative to object to quick passage of any legislative action, including the two nominations, if Senate leadership doesn't allow his vote.
On Wednesday night, Reid taunted Paul, saying, "I just think my friend from Kentucky maybe should have run for secretary of state rather than the Senate."
On the Senate floor Thursday, Paul got into a heated exchange with someone who actually is said to be in contention to become secretary of state, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"My position is not one penny more for Libya or Egypt or Pakistan until they act like our allies. Some say we've got to keep sending it. Fine. Let's send it when they act like our allies. Let's send it when they start behaving like civilized nations and come to their senses," Paul said. "Let's memorialize those people who sacrificed their lives and the veterans by saying we're not going to give money to a country that disrespects and disavows everything we've done over the last 10 years to combat terrorism."
Kerry called Paul "arrogant" for saying these countries weren't civilized and he argued that the attacks on the diplomatic outposts were not the fault of the Egyptian and Libyan governments, so punishing them would be counterproductive and self-defeating. He said pulling the aid out of Pakistan would hurt the effort in Afghanistan, where thousands of American troops are deployed.
Kerry then called on Paul to travel to those countries, and he said the U.S. role must be to help countries in their struggle for democracy and stability, not abandon them.
"Whatever happened to the great commitment of the conservative movement in America to freedom and democracy and to help it develop?" Kerry said. "Just turn your back on it, pull the aid out? What the heck?"
Beecroft's nomination hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a business meeting Sept. 19 where Beecroft, if he is on the agenda, is expected to be approved. Paul has not cited any problem with Beecroft personally, or Olson for that matter -- they are just his leverage.
If Beecroft and Olson don't get confirmed by the end of next week, the United States won't have ambassadors in Iraq or Pakistan until after the November election.
Kerry says he will push to get it done, but there are no guarantees.
"Make no mistake: Our embassy in Baghdad is one of our most important and what happens there is key to our bilateral relationship and our work in the Middle East. By all accounts, Steve Beecroft is a highly capable career Foreign Service officer who has ambassadorial experience, and it is in America's best interest to get him on the ground as quickly as possible," Kerry said in a statement to The Cable. "I will work to get him confirmed without delay."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.