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Rand Paul: No 'Great Compromiser' On Deficit

Tea Party favorite Rand Paul (R-KY) gave his first speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, invoking the legacy of his state's 19 th-century lawmaker, Henry Clay. But Rand suggested that he isn't likely to assume Clay's mantle as "the great compromiser."

In 5 minutes 15 seconds, Paul, seemingly always willing to broach sensitive and sometimes unrelated topics, spun a narrative about the battle between Clay and cousin Cassius Clay over slavery as an analogy to the forthcoming debate over the federal deficit.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whig Party and a previous occupant of Paul's Senate desk, owned slaves but supported their emancipation and deportation to Africa. He is perhaps best known for brokering a deal that allowed some states into the Union as slave states and others as free states. Cassius Clay, who was a hard-line abolitionist, had the greater moral authority, Paul said.

"As long as I sit at Henry Clay's desk, I will remember his lifelong desire to forge agreement," Paul said. However, he added, "before we eulogize Henry Clay, we should acknowledge and appreciate the contrast with contemporaries who refused to compromise." He said "one could also argue that he was morally wrong and that his decisions on slavery, to extended slavery … led to war."

"Is compromise the noble position?" Paul asked. "Is compromise a sign of enlightenment?"

Paul acknowledged that today's political debates bear no "moral equivalency" to history's debates over slavery, as he segued to his pet issue, the federal deficit: "Should we compromise by raising taxes and cutting spending, as the debt commission proposes? Is that the compromise that will save us from financial ruin? Several facts argue against that particular compromise."

Paul was elected in November on a pledge to deliver deep spending cuts. He now serves as one of four members of the new Tea Party caucus in the Senate. Recently, he submitted legislation proposing $500 billion in spending cuts for fiscal 2011. His bill would cut defense spending and eliminate federal funding for education and housing, which Paul argues fall outside the constitutional purview of the federal government.

Most other proposals, even from fellow conservative Republicans, target cuts of $100 billion or significantly less. Paul's proposal isn't expected to receive a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and a Paul spokesman said his bill is intended to start a "conversation" about deficit reduction.

As he concluded his speech, Paul struck a balanced tone, saying that attacking the deficit requires a bipartisan effort. He said liberals in Congress must come round to embracing cuts in domestic programs, and conservatives should accept the need to slash defense spending.

"Many ask, 'Will the Tea Party compromise?'" he said. "The answer is of course there must be dialogue and, ultimately, compromise."

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Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.