Senate debate over drones divides Republican Party

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is questioned by reporters on Capitol Hill.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- A sudden debate over the potential use of unmanned drones against terrorist suspects in the United States touched off a power struggle within the Republican Party on Thursday, even as the Senate confirmed President Obama’s CIA nominee after a highly publicized delay.

The fast-moving developments represented a victory for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a first-term senator from the GOP’s tea party wing, who had delayed John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director Wednesday with an old-style filibuster that lasted into the wee hours. After hurried consultations with White House officials Thursday, Paul got the answer he was demanding from the Obama administration: a letter stating that the president cannot order the targeted killing on U.S. soil of an American who is not engaged in combat.

The letter cleared the way for Brennan, the chief architect of the administration’s drone program, to be confirmed, 63 to 34.

“Hurray,” said Paul, when the letter from Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. was read to him during a Fox News interview. Earlier in the week, the administration had appeared to leave the question of targeted killings on U.S. soil at least theoretically open.

“For 13 hours yesterday we asked him that question, and so there is a result and a victory,” Paul said. “Under duress and under public humiliation, the White House will respond and do the right thing.”


White House officials and their allies in the Senate insisted that the letter simply made explicit and public what the policy had been all along. The situation Paul had hypothesized during his filibuster -- a drone strike against an American merely suspected of involvement in terrorism -- “will never happen in the United States of America,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I hope this puts this [question] to an end.”

But while the day’s developments may have settled one issue, the debate laid bare a split within the GOP. It raised new questions about the party’s reflexive commitment to national defense, and united elements of the left and right in a new cause against the Obama administration and, to some extent, Washington’s foreign policy establishment.

Paul’s filibuster, at nearly 13 hours the longest in the Senate in decades, initially drew support only from a few fellow tea party senators and congressmen. As Wednesday evening wore on, however, and Paul’s performance drew increasing attention on cable TV and social networks, more-established Republicans added their voices in a series of unusual, late-night appearances. Among them were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and two of the dozen Republican senators who had dined with Obama earlier in the evening at a downtown hotel. In the final vote, 13 Republicans voted for Brennan and 31 opposed him.

Late Wednesday, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm started a “Stand with Rand!” fundraising effort online, picking up the hashtag that was trending throughout the night on Twitter. The action by the National Republican Senatorial Committee surprised some Republican veterans in the capital.

“I would not have automatically expected that,” said Vin Weber, a former congressman and GOP advisor. “The use of drones is a national security tool, and normally Republicans’ first reaction is to be supportive of executive power in the use of national security tools. It’s interesting that the NRSC thinks it’s a political winner.”

Republican hawks, clearly concerned that Paul had stolen their thunder, struck back Thursday with Senate speeches lacerating their junior colleague.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the question that Paul was pursuing was “offensive,” and he suggested partisan motives.

“I don’t remember any of you suggesting that President Bush was going to kill someone with a drone,” Graham said, addressing fellow Republican senators. “What are we up to here?”

A visibly angry Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in a Senate speech, “I don’t think what happened yesterday is helpful to the American people.” Paul’s suggestion that law-abiding citizens need to fear attack from their own government “brings the conversation from a serious discussion … to the realm of the ridiculous,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which has considerable influence among Republicans, accused Paul of “showmanship” and staging a “political stunt.”

The fight has potential to influence not only the debate over the future of the GOP but the next presidential contest, already in its earliest stages. Paul, son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is a likely 2016 candidate. His success in capitalizing on the drone issue stood in sharp contrast with the off-key efforts this week of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who stumbled over his position on immigration as he signaled that he was open to a 2016 run.

The drone debate wasn’t the first recent departure from the long-dominant position on national defense in Republican dogma. Last month, Republicans in Congress allowed automatic spending reductions to take effect that cut more deeply into defense than the rest of the federal budget.

Meanwhile, civil libertarians on the left joined tea party supporters in praising Paul’s efforts. The activist antiwar group Code Pink sent flowers and candy to his office.

“It was a courageous and historic filibuster,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The issue has really exploded with the American public, particularly among conservatives who are very concerned about what looks like a grab of authority to kill.”

Others suggested that the debate over drones could mark the start of an effort by both Republicans and Democrats to reclaim some of the power that Congress ceded to the executive branch since 9/11.

The debate “about the balance between liberty and security is a bipartisan concern,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has pushed for more information about the legal underpinnings of Obama’s policy on targeted killings. “I think you’re going to start seeing the emergence of what I sometimes call around here a checks and balances caucus, and there will be a lot of Democrats.”

But Jim Manley, an institutional loyalist who spent 21 years as a Senate Democratic staff member, expressed concern that Paul’s success could worsen the deadlock in Congress by sparking a new wave of marathon debates. “I’m worried that he and his colleagues are going to take away the wrong lessons from last night,” he said. “In the 24-hour media environment, with the Twitterverse and everything else, it’s so much easier to demagogue than it ever was before.”