NSA Revelations and Immigration Bill Place Rand Paul Center Stage

As Paul’s profile grows, Democrats are beginning to use him as a symbol of sinister Republican power. Ben Jacobs reports.

A man who was an obscure ophthalmologist only four years ago reinforced his role as one of the important political figures in the United States during a short speech on immigration reform before a gathering of conservative Latinos in the Hyatt Hotel in Washington on Wednesday morning. The freshman senator from Kentucky strategically placed himself in the middle ground of the immigration debate. “I’m sort of in between, I think, of where the House and the Senate is,” said Paul.

In remarks to reporters afterward he made clear that his vote was still up for grabs—provided that the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which wrote the Senate bill, listened to his suggestions on border security and farm workers. Paul said that those “in charge of the bill” should “come to people like me who want to vote for it but are not quite there yet and say to us what would it take to bring you along.” Although the Kentucky senator voted to allow debate on the bill on Tuesday, he is still on the fence about supporting final passage.

Paul touted his “trust but verify” proposal that would require the border patrol to certify that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure each year. This certification would have to be affirmed by Congress in an annual vote for any undocumented immigrants to be put on a path to citizenship.

But Rand Paul isn’t just grabbing headlines on immigration reform. With issues coming to the fore involving privacy, technology, and the surveillance state long touted by his father, former congressman Ron Paul, the Kentucky senator is uniquely positioned in the current debate. His 12-hour filibuster on the use of drones on American soil captured the public’s imagination and his strident opposition to the NSA’s surveillance program, as revealed last week by leaker Edward Snowden, has even included a threat to launch a class-action suit in federal court. (Snowden reportedly contributed $500 to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.)

Paul’s place in the spotlight is already drawing fire from Democrats. On Tuesday night at a fundraiser for Rep Edward Markey, the Democratic nominee in the upcoming special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Vice President Joe Biden slammed Paul as a sinister power in the modern Republican Party. Biden told attendees that the GOP had become “beholden” to Paul as well as Ted Cruz. He said that many Republican senators had told him that they had not supported gun-control measures like Toomey-Manchin in the wake of the Newtown massacre because “I don’t want to take on Rand Paul.”

The Kentucky senator was always well positioned to take the forefront of the debate on privacy with the NSA’s revelations but, with his efforts both to make himself a crucial vote on immigration as well as to shore up his credentials among social conservatives—telling attendees Wednesday about his commitment to defending life from conception to the last dying breath—he’s now made himself one of the key powerbrokers in the Republican conference.

It is Rand Paul’s moment. He just has to decide how he’s going to use it.