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Rand Paul’s bipartisan strategy is working

Paul at a press conference on sexual assault in the military, November 2013
Paul at a press conference on sexual assault in the military, November 2013
Alex Wong / Getty

On Tuesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) released a proposal for a wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill — authored with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). The response focused as much on the coauthors as it did on the bill, with commentators marveling at the bipartisan "bromance" between the two men.

Yet, for Paul, this is nothing new. While Congress is becoming more dysfunctional than ever, Paul has, again and again, crossed party lines to try and get things done. On a range of important issues — from surveillance reform, to highway funding, to combating sexual assault in the military, he's been eager to work with liberal Democrats.

Paul's efforts to cross party lines have earned him one prominent fan — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I really like the guy. I just like him as a person," Reid said to a group of reporters, including Vox, on Wednesday. When Paul first joined the Senate, Reid thought he "was the new Jesse Helms. But he's just a super nice guy."

In recent weeks, Congress has been trying to reach a deal on how to pay for the Highway Trust Fund. Instead of posturing or finger-pointing, Paul worked with Reid to find a solution. He proposed paying for the measure by letting multinational corporations bring their overseas profits back home in exchange for a tax deduction — the proposal, referred to as repatriation, is estimated to raise $20 billion in revenue. The idea didn't work, but Reid was impressed that Paul engaged. "I have spent hours with him on repatriation," the majority leader says. "My caucus doesn't think repatriation is the way to fund the highway bill, but at least Rand Paul is trying to come up with something constructive."

Paul has been particularly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. His bill with Booker gives incentives for states to reform the juvenile justice system in several ways. It also helps adults with nonviolent offenses seal their criminal records, and allows low-level drug offenders to receive food stamp and welfare benefits after they've served their time. "My staff has spent hours and hours with him [Paul] on this Booker sentencing bill. He's right about this!" Reid raves. Paul's also worked on a bill with Pat Leahy (D-VT), the liberal chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to allow justices to hand down sentences below mandatory minimums in certain cases. And he wants to restore voting rights to many nonviolent felons — again, working with Reid —and called it "the biggest voting rights issue of our day."

After secret NSA surveillance programs were revealed last year, Paul worked closely with Ron Wyden (D-OR), the leading Democrat trying to reform the agency. He signed onto Wyden's bill to end the bulk collection of US phone records, and co-authored an op-ed with Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) on "how to end the NSA dragnet." And when Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) tried to change the military's procedures for prosecuting sexual assault, Paul became one of her most important GOP supporters.

Overseas, Paul wants the US to be less militaristic — he's said he believes "a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy." And he's worked with Democrats on several proposals to that end — measures that would limit any US military involvement in Syria, withdraw from Afghanistan more quickly, and give Congress more say in how long the war should continue.

Some Democrats are distrustful of Paul's bipartisan outreach, and suspect it's purely about positioning himself for the 2016 presidential race.  And Paul certainly isn't a liberal — indeed, political science data on polarization showed him as the second-most conservative senator in the 2011-2012 period. That metric, though, is based on votes — and many Senate votes are over spending and government funding issues, on which Paul is extremely conservative. Paul is also very anti-abortion, and opposes gay marriage. He has recently argued for downplaying both issues, saying that the GOP, "in order to get bigger, will have to agree to disagree on social issues."

Leaving presidential politics aside, Paul's biggest problem is that none of his major bipartisan proposals has yet managed to pass. So though we know Paul's interested in reaching out to Democrats to get things done, he's not yet shown that he can actually overcome Congressional dysfunction and shepherd some of these measures into law.