The fight over the Obama administration’s use of drones exposed deepening divisions within Republican ranks between the libertarian-leaning and defense-minded wings of the party over national security.
The long-simmering battle exploded onto the Senate floor this week when Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham bashed fellow Sen. Rand Paul for filibustering the nomination of John O. Brennen to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency until the Obama administration assured the Kentucky Republican that it would not use drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil.
“You are starting to see a bit of a split between the libertarian-leaning lawmakers and essentially what you see as defense hawks,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “We are a war-weary nation. While the GOP is still seen as the national defense party, what you are seeing is a rising trend of libertarianism.
“You are also seeing the Republican Party reset on where it is on national security. Essentially what the libertarians are saying is, ‘Hey, we have to be more careful about the future because we’ve just been through 10 years of war here.’ The defense hawks are saying, ‘National security trumps all and we have to be ready at all times.’”
Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Paul does not know what he is talking about when it comes to the drone program and suggested that he has done a “disservice to some Americans by making them believe that somehow they’re in danger from their government.”
“The country needs more senators that care about liberty, but if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarians in their college dorms,” Mr. McCain said.
Almost 24 hours earlier, Mr. Paul kicked off his old-fashioned filibuster of the Brennan nomination, threatening to block the confirmation vote until Mr. Obama clarified whether the administration believed it had the legal right to use drones to kill U.S. citizens accused of being linked to terrorist without due process of the law.
“I will speak today until the president responds and says no, we won’t kill Americans in cafes; no, we won’t kill you at home in your bed at night; no, we won’t drop bombs on restaurants. Is that so hard?” Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Paul, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, provided a glimpse into his libertarian brand of Republicanism, talking about his effort to end the war in Iraq while warning about the importance of ensuring the war in Afghanistan has boundaries and encouraging Americans to safeguard their constitutional rights.
“Are we so afraid of terrorism and so afraid of terrorists that we are willing to just throw out our rights and our freedoms and what we have fought for and have gotten over the centuries?” Mr. Paul said.
Along the way, Mr. Paul got a little help from some friends, as a dozen other senators, including several tea party members, came to the floor to give him breaks from talking. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, also showed up and showered Mr. Paul’s effort with praise.
Mr. Paul also alluded to the 2011 fight over the Defense Authorization Act, which civil liberties group said allowed the U.S. military to detain American citizens indefinitely — where Mr. Graham said that when American citizens who align themselves with al Qaeda ask for an attorney, the answer is “Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.”
“Is that the kind of due process we want in our country?” Mr. Paul said. “Is that what we’re moving towards? So the questions we’re asking here are important questions. And these questions are: Does the bill of rights apply? Can they have exceptions to the bill of rights?”
Mr. Graham fired back by saying he was disappointed with his party for “no longer thinking we are at war” and casting Mr. Paul as a loner.
“Not Sen. Paul — he has a man to himself,” Mr. Graham said. “He has a view. I don’t think it’s a Republican view. I think it is a legitimately held libertarian view.”
Mr. Graham also said the Obama administration should ignore Mr. Paul’s request for additional information. “I do not believe that question deserves an answer,” Mr. Graham said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., though, sent Mr. Paul a response a few hours later, saying Mr. Obama does not have the power to unilaterally approve drone strikes against Americans — paving the way for the Senate confirmation of Mr. Brennan.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, applauded Mr. Paul’s effort. “It forced the White House’s hand,” Mr. Gohmert said. “They had to respond. They had to take a position.”
The back-and-forth highlighted a debate within the Republican Party that pits the old guard — whose fingerprints are all over the nation’s military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — against some of the Republican Party’s rising stars, several of whom rode into Congress as part of the backlash against growth of government and federal spending that started under President George W. Bush and continued on Mr. Obama’s watch.
“There was definitely a trend there among the newer members,” said Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican. “Those who have been elected to the Senate, or the election before that, we tend to have this viewpoint in common. The view that we need to look out for individual liberties of Americans we ought not just take it for granted that our government is going to behave responsibility and respect both the privacy and the lives of Americans.”
Asked about the response from Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, Mr. Lee gave them a pass.
“Everyone is entitled to a mulligan now and then, and I am willing to give it them,” he said.