WASHINGTON — Republicans split bitterly Thursday over a GOP senator’s old-school filibuster of President Barack Obama’s CIA nominee John Brennan amid claims that the administration could use drones to target Americans suspected of terrorism.
Just hours after Sen. Rand Paul ended his nearly 13-hour talkathon — and got an endorsement from Minority Leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell — two senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee dismissed Paul’s claims as unfounded and ridiculous.
Both Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also challenged members of their own party.
“To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone,” Graham said in remarks on the Senate floor.
McCain scoffed at Paul’s contention that the U.S. would have targeted actress Jane Fonda during her trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
“I must say that the use of Jane Fonda’s name does evoke certain memories with me, and I must say that she is not my favorite American, but I also believe that, as odious as it was, Ms. Fonda acted within her constitutional rights,” said McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 51/2 years.
Graham said he had planned to vote against Brennan’s nomination but now plans to support the nominee because the confirmation fight has become a referendum on the drone program.
Paul is pressing the administration for greater clarity on whether the Obama administration has the authority to use lethal force, such as a drone, against a suspected terrorist who is a U.S. citizen. Hours after the filibuster, the Republican leader said Paul deserves an answer.
“It simply doesn’t have that right, and the administration should just answer the question,” McConnell said. “There is no reason we cannot get this question answered today, and we should get this question answered today. Frankly, it should have been answered a long time ago.”
The Obama administration has said it has not conducted such operations inside U.S. borders, nor does it intend to. Paul and backers said that wasn’t good enough. They wanted the White House to rule out the possibility of them happening altogether.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would vote to end the filibuster Saturday morning unless lawmakers can reach an agreement to vote earlier.
Paul’s performance, which centered on questions about the possible use of drones against targets in the United States, clearly energized a number of his GOP colleagues, who came to the floor in a show of support and to share in the speaking duties. And even as the night progressed, Paul appeared invigorated despite being on his feet for so long. Actual talking filibusters have become rare in the Senate, where the rules are typically used in procedural ways to block the other party’s agenda.
After Paul yielded the floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., filed a motion to cut off debate on Brennan’s nomination, setting up a vote for later this week.
Paul, a critic of Obama’s drone policy, started just before noon Wednesday by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring that the aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens. But by the time he left the Senate floor, Paul said he’d received no response.
Paul wasn’t picky about the format, saying at one point he’d be happy with a telegram or a Tweet. Paul said he recognized he can’t stop Brennan from being confirmed. But the nomination was the right vehicle for a debate over what the Obama White House believes are the limits of the federal government’s ability to conduct lethal operations against suspected terrorists, he said.
“No president has the right to say he is judge, jury and executioner,” Paul said.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee used Paul’s stand to raise money for GOP candidates and said Thursday that they received donations “in the high five figures as of last tally.”
About a dozen of Paul’s colleagues who share his conservative views came to the floor to take turns speaking for him and trading questions. McConnell congratulated Paul for his “tenacity and for his conviction,” and he called Brennan a “controversial nominee.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, read Twitter messages from people eager to “Stand With Rand.” The Twitterverse, said Cruz, is “blowing up.” And as the night went on, Cruz spoke for longer periods as Paul leaned against a desk across the floor. Cruz, an insurgent Republican with strong tea party backing, read passages from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and lines from the 1970 movie “Patton,” starring George C. Scott.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made references to rappers Jay-Z and Wiz Khalifa. Rubio, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, chided the White House for failing to respond to Paul. “It’s not a Republican question. It’s not a conservative question,” Rubio said. “It’s a constitutional question.”
The tea party-backed Paul first stepped onto the national stage in 2010 when he vanquished McConnell’s chosen Senate candidate in a GOP primary in Kentucky. Since then, he’s reveled in the popularity he has with the tea party and inherited his father’s libertarian-leaning political network, built over two failed Ron Paul presidential runs. All that has stoked belief inside GOP circles that he may be positioning himself for a future national campaign, possibly as early as 2016.
Along with Cruz, Rubio and McConnell, other Republicans who joined Paul on the floor included Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also made an appearance. Wyden has long pressed for greater oversight of the use of drones.
Holder came close to making the statement Paul wanted earlier Wednesday during an exchange with Cruz at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, according to Paul.
Cruz asked Holder if the Constitution allowed the federal government to kill on U.S. soil a U.S. citizen who doesn’t pose an imminent threat. Holder said the situation was hypothetical, but he did not think that in that situation the use of a drone or lethal force would be appropriate. Cruz criticized Holder for not simply saying “no” in response.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Paul, Brennan said the CIA does not have authority to conduct lethal operations inside the U.S.
Holder told Paul in a March 4 letter that the federal government has not conducted such operations and has no intention of doing so. But Holder also wrote that he supposed it was possible under an “extraordinary circumstance” that the president would have no choice but to authorize the military to use lethal force inside U.S. borders. Holder cited the attacks at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, as examples.
Paul said he did not dispute that the president has the authority to take swift and lethal action against an enemy who carried out a significant attack against the United States. But Paul said he was “alarmed” at how difficult it has been to get the administration to clearly define what qualifies as a legitimate target of a drone strike.
The record for the longest individual speech on the Senate floor belongs to former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
If confirmed, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.