Sen. Rand Paul's days-long quest to find the House Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare was derided by GOP lawmakers as a "publicity stunt," but it might just put the Kentucky senator back in the mix when it comes to influencing Congress as it prepares to make a series of key policy decisions.
Like other Republican presidential contenders, Paul's showmanship was consistently upstaged by Donald Trump's last year. But Paul has a knack for putting himself in the center of the conversation.
He did it in his famous "Stand with Rand" filibuster of John Brennan's nomination, designed to focus attention on drone strikes and extrajudicial killings. One poll found a 50-point swing in favor of Paul's position on drone strikes after the 2013 filibuster. And he's done it with other obscure issues that don't tend to get a lot of attention.
Now, Paul is angling for a chance to shape the healthcare debate, the outcome of which will likely play a huge role in how Republicans are perceived in the 2018 midterm elections.
Political observers believe Paul and other outspoken lawmakers have a chance to have outsized impact in Congress and in the Trump administration. Relations between Congress and the White House are also more complicated than they usually are in periods of unified government. For example, a key Paul ally, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., is Trump's budget director.
"Rand could really be one of the most important members," said a Republican congressional aide who is more sympathetic to Paul.
If he can get there, it would be a comeback of sorts for a senator who rode the libertarian wave to prominence. Trump's election victory was widely viewed as an end to that wave — Trump is not a civil libertarian, an entitlement reformer or a spending cutter. But Trump ran 5 points ahead of Paul in Kentucky where they were both on the ballot in November.
Last week and early this week, Paul began to reinsert himself by launching a public quest for the House GOP healthcare bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed that effort as a "publicity stunt," and others said it was "distraction" from the tough effort within the Republican Party to fight the law.
But for Paul, it was a return to form, and a return to the tactics he's been able to employ so successfully from his Senate seat. The healthcare reform fight is an opening for Paul to get back into the spotlight and try to win headlines for his uncompromising brand of fiscal conservatism, and it's one the ophthalmologist and son of an obstetrician is seizing with vigor.
"I have been told that the House Obamacare bill is under lock and key, in a secure location, and not available for me or the public to view," he tweeted last week.
I have been told that the House Obamacare bill is under lock & key, in a secure location, & not available for me or the public to view.— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 2, 2017
Paul showed up to the room where the bill was being worked on with his own copying machine, vowing to let the American people see it. When he wasn't granted a copy, he talked to reporters instead.
"If you'd recall, when Obamacare was passed in 2009 and 2010, Nancy Pelosi said you'll know what's in it after you pass it," Paul said. "The Republican Party shouldn't act in the same way."
The senator's office tweeted out locations throughout Washington where the bill might be hidden.
We are continuing our search for the Obamacare Lite bill! Do you know where the secret location might be? Has anyone seen the bill? pic.twitter.com/WcSIDTs0vP— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 3, 2017
But Paul was making a serious point with his whimsical tactics. He has joined with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, along with the House Freedom Caucus in insisting on full repeal of Obamacare's spending, mandates and taxes, instead of the partial repeal the GOP is pursuing, which critics say would leave the country with "Obamacare-lite."
The senator and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., have introduced their own Obamacare replacement plan, which goes further than the one backed by House Republican leaders and does not rely on refundable tax credits to help people buy health insurance. The bill does contain tax credits to bolster expanded health savings accounts.
Paul has also tweaked the GOP leadership when he said publicly that then President-elect Trump agreed with him about the need to repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously. Paul was originally elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, when Republicans gained seats in Congress in the aftermath of Obamacare's enactment.
Paul's conservative allies in the House give him some chance to bargain for a better deal. On healthcare reform in particular, a combination of staunch conservatives or moderate Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine could determine the fate of the GOP leadership's efforts.
In the meantime, Paul is back in a familiar place: at the center of attention.