WASHINGTON – Invoking legendary 19th-century Sen. Henry Clay and the abolitionist movement, freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered his first Senate floor speech Wednesday to signal that he and the tea party are willing to compromise with opponents on the federal debt and spending cuts.

But their compromise would be narrowly drawn.

“Many ask, will the tea party compromise? Can the tea party work with others to find a solution?” Paul said in his brief address. “The answer is, of course, there must be dialogue and ultimately compromise, but compromise must occur on where we cut spending.”

The perceived inflexibility of tea party devotees combined with their popularity in last November’s elections complicates the ability of Republican leaders in Congress to strike deals with Democrats, lest they face challenges from the right in their next elections. Paul’s comments that tea party leaders recognize the necessity of compromise offers hope of bipartisan agreements.

But Paul, a tea party favorite who catapulted onto the national scene after defeating an establishment Republican candidate in Kentucky’s Senate primary last year, warned that he isn’t interested in compromise for compromise’s sake.

Some tea party members also have signaled that they’re not in a compromising mood over spending cuts or raising the federal government’s $14.3 trillion debt limit, which Congress must decide on by March 31.

Paul said he agonized over compromise questions and sought guidance from the lessons of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay — who was nicknamed “The Great Compromiser” during his long political career in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In hopes of avoiding a civil war, Clay helped forge compromises in 1820 and 1850 that helped keep slavery alive, Paul said.

“Is compromise the noble position? Is compromise a sign of enlightenment? Will compromise allow us to avoid the looming debt crisis?” asked Paul, who sits at Clay’s desk in the Senate chamber. “Henry Clay’s life is at best a mixed message.”

Instead, Paul said, he looks to Frederick Douglass and others in the anti-slavery movement as inspirations because “they said slavery is wrong and they would not compromise.”