WASHINGTON » Sen. Rand Paul’s intention was to highlight his misgivings about how drones are used. He ended up enmeshing his fellow Republicans in a broader debate over national security that scrambled the politics of left and right.
After invoking and being embraced by civil-liberties-minded liberals during a 13-hour filibuster starting Wednesday on the Senate floor, Paul, R-Ky., was showered with praise on Thursday by both the Tea Party movement and the provocateurs of the peace group Code Pink. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, praised Paul’s conviction.
Paul, a libertarian in the mold of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, pointedly questioned whether the government had the authority to kill a U.S. citizen in the United States with a drone strike — an effort that generated a tremendous following on social media.
But he was assailed by two of his party’s most prominent national security hawks, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They took to the floor on Thursday to defend President Barack Obama’s aggressive use of drones against al-Qaida and its affiliates and to suggest that Paul and his backers had engaged in scaremongering.
"We’ve done, I think, a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them think that somehow they’re in danger from their government," McCain said. "They’re not. But we are in danger from a dedicated, longstanding, easily replaceable-leadership enemy that is hellbent on our destruction."
Paul won particular support from two other Tea Party-backed Republicans, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. The three spelled one another during the filibuster on Wednesday afternoon and evening, drawing in part from a huge positive response on Twitter to their efforts.
But with Tea Party supporters having demonstrated the ability to mount primary challenges to incumbents they consider insufficiently conservative, an array of other Republican senators showed up on the Senate floor late Wednesday night to support Paul’s filibuster.
They included McConnell, who has been moving vigorously to shut down chatter about a potential primary challenge to his re-election campaign next year, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who has drawn some Tea Party criticism for his openness to an immigration overhaul that would give illegal immigrants a chance at gaining citizenship.
As Republicans went at one another and White House officials watched in bemusement, the administration directly answered the question at the heart of Paul’s filibuster. No, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter Thursday to Paul, the president does not have the authority to use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on American soil who is not engaged in combat.
Holder did not say how the president would determine who is an enemy combatant. And he did not back off his statement on Wednesday that the president has the authority to pursue military action inside the U.S. in extraordinary circumstances, an assertion that helped set off Paul’s filibuster.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Senate went on to address what Paul had been seeking to delay with his filibuster, the confirmation of John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. After Democrats threatened to keep in the Senate in session through the weekend to deal with the confirmation, Republicans allowed a quick vote and Brennan was approved, 63-34.
Among those voting in favor of Brennan was Graham, who had earlier indicated that he might vote no but said Thursday that he would support the nomination to send a signal that he backs the drone program.
By the time the Senate adjourned for the weekend, a Republican Party that had long assailed Obama as a leader who would turn a war on terrorism into a police action with Miranda rights for suspects had shown itself to be sharply divided over whether the president had instead grabbed too much power and was risking violating the Constitution in his efforts to keep the nation safe.
"The question of whether the United States government can kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil when that individual does not pose an imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm is a fundamental issue of liberty," Cruz said. "It is an issue of enforcing the explicit language of our Constitution."
While the events of the day brought into sharp relief the strains within the various components of the conservative movement, they also highlighted bipartisan unease in Congress over Obama’s policy of keeping information about the drone program tightly held.
In particular, the events suggested that both ends of the ideological spectrum were intent on drawing the administration into a more public discussion of its legal rationale for its use of drones — including in one case to kill a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric and al-Qaida planner, in Yemen — and questions about due process for terrorism suspects targeted by the U.S.
Among the no votes on the Brennan nomination was Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He has been pressing the White House to release memos to the committee setting out the administration’s legal rationale for drone strikes against U.S. citizens, but so far the White House has provided the memos only to the Intelligence Committee.
"There is a prospect for a libertarian-right, progressive-left coalition on transparency issues," said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas.
Best known in foreign policy circles until now for being on the losing end of 90-1 Senate vote last year on Iran policy, Paul emerged as a voice of populists on the right who are concerned about what they see as an unchecked national security state that too often becomes overinvolved in the rest of the world.
While he has sought to distance himself somewhat from the explicitly isolationist and anti-war stances of his father, Paul still reflects deep suspicion among libertarians and Tea Party supporters about global entanglements. He has expressed skepticism about foreign aid and the need for overseas military bases, opposes U.S. involvement in Syria and has sought more restrictions on the powers of presidents to wage war.
"There’s a healthy debate in the Republican caucus," Paul said when asked about divisions in the party and criticism by McCain and Graham. "People are starting to understand that just by calling someone an enemy combatant doesn’t make them an enemy combatant. Someone has to assess their guilt or innocence, and it’s a pretty important question."