WASHINGTON — Invoking legendary 19th century Sen. Henry Clay and the abolitionist movement, freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered his first Senate floor speech Wednesday to signal that he and the tea party are willing to compromise with opponents on the federal debt and spending cuts.
But their compromise would be narrowly drawn.
"Many ask, will the tea party compromise? Can the tea party work with others to find a solution?" Paul said in his brief address. "The answer is, of course. There must be dialogue and ultimately compromise, but compromise must occur on where we cut spending."
The perceived inflexibility of tea party devotees, combined with their popularity in November's elections, complicates the ability of Republican leaders in Congress to strike deals with Democrats, lest they face challenges from the right in their next elections. Paul's comments that tea party leaders recognize the necessity of compromise offer hope of bipartisan agreement.
But Paul, a tea party favorite who catapulted onto the national scene after defeating an establishment GOP candidate in Kentucky's Senate primary last year, warned he isn't interested in compromise for compromise's sake.
Paul said he agonized over compromise questions and turned for guidance to the lessons of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, who was nicknamed "The Great Compromiser" during his long political career in the Senate and the House of Representatives during the first half of the 19th century.
In hopes of avoiding a civil war, Clay helped forge compromises in 1820 and 1850 that helped keep slavery alive, he said.
"Is compromise the noble position? Is compromise a sign of enlightenment? Will compromise allow us to avoid the looming debt crisis?" said Paul, who sits at Clay's desk in the Senate chamber. "Henry Clay's life is, at best, a mixed message."
Instead, Paul said, he looks to Cassius Clay, Frederick Douglass and others in the anti-slavery movement as inspirations because "they said slavery is wrong, and they would not compromise."
"Now, today, we have no issues, no moral issues that have equivalency with the issue of slavery, yet we do face a fiscal nightmare, potentially a debt crisis in our country," he said Wednesday.
Paul said Democrats, Republicans and tea party supporters could find common ground by agreeing to cut spending — with no political sacred cows.