Rand Paul and John McCain Go to War Over ISIS Vote

How a "nice little water bill" sparked a battle between a 2016 White House hopeful and the GOP's top hawk.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 13: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) (L) and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) listen during a news conference on Capitol Hill to introduce a Republican jobs proposal to compete with that put forward by President Obama on October 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. The legislation targets the tax code, spending, and regulation in an attempt to grow the private sector. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) (National Journal)

A high-profile clash of Republican senators erupted Thursday after Sen. Rand Paul made a surprise, last-minute effort to force a vote on a declaration of war against the Islamic State.

The battle pitted Paul, a likely presidential contender who is wary of foreign entanglements, against Sen. John McCain, a past Republican White House nominee who remains his party's highest-profile defense hawk. The dispute between the upstart and the Old Bull was as much about respect for Senate procedure and tradition as it was about the deep foreign policy differences that divide the two men.

Paul's plan was to tie his proposal to an obscure water bill during a procedural lame-duck meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republicans on the committee were outraged, saying the move was a hasty and ill-conceived method to addressing a weighty issue.

"It was the most bizarre meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee that I have ever attended in my life or ever expected to attend," McCain said. "A water bill, a nice little water bill, uncontroversial. "¦ It was ludicrous. It's a living, breathing argument against lame-duck sessions."

For Paul, the unusual move was one of necessity. He believes it's imperative for Congress to weigh in on the ISIS conflict before it leaves town—even if it takes a rushed vote on an unrelated bill to get it done. The Kentucky Republican has cultivated a reputation for absolute fealty to the Constitution, and he believes the White House currently lacks the authority to engage the terrorist state without congressional go-ahead. Failing to act, he said, is to be complicit in executive overreach if and when the administration puts American forces into the fight.

Other Republicans, like Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow 2016 contender, think that concern is overblown. "I don't think [an Authorization of Military Force] is legally necessary," he said. "I think that any time we act with Congress's approval of the president's actions, it makes it stronger. But legally, I think he has the right to pursue emerging threats to the U.S., and ISIL is certainly that."

Rubio said during Thursday's meeting that he recognizes the water bill is "the last train leaving the station" during the lame duck, but he criticized attempts to rush it through. "This issue deserves not just these hearings, but a further debate," he said. He also sought to distinguish himself from his likely GOP primary opponent on policy, saying his proposed restrictions on ground troops and a one-year timeline handcuff the White House. "We should authorize the president to win," he said.

After much hand-wringing by Republicans—including a plea from visibly agitated ranking member Bob Corker—Paul and Chairman Robert Menendez agreed to push the proposal back to a stand-alone vote next week, following a Monday hearing on the issue in which Secretary of State John Kerry may be able to provide testimony (senators and the State Department were still unclear whether Kerry's schedule will allow him to show up).

But the delay did little to allay the concerns of Paul's GOP colleagues. "I still think it's going to be too rushed," Corker said. No one—including Paul—believes passing the bill through Foreign Relations will be enough to get it to the Senate floor during the lame duck. Democratic leadership indicated that it is highly unlikely the full Senate will have time to consider the AUMF during the last few days of the session.

McCain's wording was a little stronger. "There's not a snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Arizona, I promise you, to get an AUMF in this session of Congress," he said, predicting that next week's hearing will be "as funny as a Saturday Night Live skit."

The dispute illustrates a fundamental divide between the fast-rising Paul and the veteran McCain. McCain cited precedent, saying an AUMF has always originated from the White House. Corker and others repeated this, saying the onus is on the president to lay out a strategy for Congress to weigh. Paul, along with Democratic allies like Sen. Tim Kaine, sees relying on past methods as problematic (his bill repeals two previous AUMFs) and argues Congress should reassert its policy-setting role on overseas conflicts.

"The only thing worse than doing it this way [via a water bill] "¦ is to allow another month or two months of unilateral war without Congress saying a mumbling word about it," Kaine said during the hearing. Democrats, all of whom are expected to support Paul's proposal, agreed. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen called the process "lousy," and Sen. Dick Durbin said he was "totally conflicted"—but all agreed the Senate could not let the lame duck go by without addressing the issue.

Republicans were not swayed. "Why would you not want to at least understand what our strategy is going to be?" Corker said. "It's almost a scene out of Mayberry." McCain took Paul's move as an opportunity to pummel the White House as well. "There is no [administration] proposal," he said. "Why is there no proposal? They have no strategy."

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article