- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sen. Rand Paul used last week’s battle over the federal budget to reinforce his image as the top fiscal hawk in the 2016 presidential field, calling out his colleagues for demanding more military spending without showing how they would pay for it.

Mr. Paul closed out the Senate “vote-a-rama” by giving a thumbs down to the GOP budget, hours after he opened up his day on the Senate floor by ripping apart Sen. Marco Rubio’s push to beef up the defense budget.

“It is irresponsible and dangerous to continue to put America further into debt, even for something we need,” Mr. Paul said on the Senate floor. “We need national defense, but we should pay for it.”

Mr. Paul and fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz ended up as the only two Republicans to vote against the budget, which passed 52-46 early Friday morning after dozens of votes that divided not only the GOP and Democrats, but also exposed divisions within the Republican presidential field.

Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said the budget votes provided more clues into how senators will approach the GOP nomination process — with Mr. Paul playing up his credentials as a fiscal hawk.

“He wants voters to think he has the most integrity because you can’t balance the budget and increase military spending without reductions in other areas,” Mr. West said.

Mr. Rubio bolstered the notion he is running in the GOP’s establishment lane, cementing his image as a defense hawk and making a play for moderate-minded voters by supporting an amendment that would block agencies from restricting speech on climate change.

His key moment came on his amendment to increase defense spending to the levels included in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ 2012 defense budget.

Mr. Rubio said the proposal “fully” funds defense.

“The national security of our country is the predominant obligation of the federal branch of government,” Mr. Rubio said on the Senate floor. “It is the one thing that only the federal government can do, and it is the first thing it is tasked with doing. If it cannot protect us from foreign threats, and protect our national security, all the other issues that we are contemplating” become minor.

Mr. Paul voted against Mr. Rubio’s amendment — which Mr. Cruz and Sen. Lindsey Graham, another potential 2016 candidate, supported — and then offered an amendment that coupled an increase in defense spending with spending reductions in the budget.

“America does not project power from bankruptcy court. We need a strong national defense, but we should be honest with the American people and pay for it,” Mr. Paul said.

Senators defeated his amendment on a 96-4 vote, but his allies used it as another chance to drive home his message.

“No one should be seeking increased funding for anything by increasing our debt,” said Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to Mr. Paul.

Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason, a libertarian magazine, said that Mr. Paul is going to do everything he can to be the “biggest hard-ass on spending, period.”

“He is doing a dance there, where he is trying to make his brand of skepticism toward military spending and intervention palpable in the contest of a GOP primary and at a moment where that electorate is more hawkish by a lot than it was 18 months ago,” Mr. Welch said.

He said that Mr. Paul is “storing up ammo for the GOP debates” and wants to be able to say to his rivals that “your hawkishness is fiscally irresponsible.”

Mr. Welch added it is a delicate balancing act for Mr. Paul, who is trying to broaden his appeal without losing the base of support that his father, Rep. Ron Paul, had during his presidential bids.

“He has to distance himself from his father’s fan base, without distancing himself from his father’s fan base — and everybody knows it,” he said.

Mr. Graham, meanwhile, broke with his potential rivals by backing a bipartisan proposal to replace the sequester cuts to defense and domestic programs with a combination of spending cuts elsewhere and eliminating tax breaks.

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