WASHINGTON -- Providing some clarity on his opinion of the war in Afghanistan, Sen.-elect Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Sunday that Tea Partiers support strong national security efforts but he probably wouldn't get in the way of President Obama's decision to reduce troops in Afghanistan.
Saying he needs to learn more about current operations in Afghanistan, the Kentucky Republican, who had been vague on the campaign trail about his position on the war, said he wants to know whether the U.S. is still threatened by Afghanistan. But troop levels are the president's domain.
"What I think is that ultimately troop deployments are decided by the president, not by Congress. I don't think really Congress can decide troop levels. In fact, I think if Congress told him to bring all of them home on a certain time, I think he can do what he wants constitutionally," Paul said.
The senator-elect added that the Constitution outlines national defense as a top priority for the federal government, but he wants to learn whether a large ground war in Afghanistan is providing U.S. the defense it needs.
"What I would say is, do we need to be there in a large ground war? Or could we be there on a smaller base ... After 10 years, I think the Afghans need to have stepped up more to do more. And if you ask our G.I.s, when I asked them from Kentucky leaving the base, I say, 'Are the Afghans stepping up enough? Would you rather the Afghans do more of the patrolling on the streets?' Every one of these young brave men and women will tell you, 'Yes.' So the mood is changing even within those who are the brave young men and women that are serving our country," Paul said.
The incoming senator has been a Tea Party hero throughout the election cycle, first in his insurgent victory in the Republican primary against the establishment-supported candidate, then by winning the general election against state Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.
During his campaign, Paul had been careful to defend the Tea Party vision, which he argues is decidedly domestic-based.
He said Sunday that while the Tea Party believes in a strong national defense, it is more concerned with the debt, which means looking at the military as an outlet ripe for spending cuts.
"Republicans never say they'll cut anything out of military. What I say is, national defense is the most important thing we do in Washington, but there's still waste in the military budget. You have to make it smaller, but you also then need to address, how many wars are we going to be involved in? Are we going to be involved in every war all the time?" he said.
Paul added that all government spending must be "on the table," and he supports a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget. But he said he would not list soldier pay as an area where the federal government can reduce its expenses.
"I think that's something that you can't do," he said. "I think that soldiers have to be paid. Now, can we say that gradually we don't need as large of an Army if we're not in two wars? Yes, I think you can say that. You can save money there."
He added that removing troops from overseas posts or having nations that host U.S. troops pay more for their own defense could provide new routes for savings.