Rand Paul speaks as parties change places on executive power

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has finally stopped talking, but the conversation about presidential war powers and extrajudicial killings sparked by his filibuster continues.

On Thursday morning, pro-Paul hashtags like #StandWithRand remain among the top trending topics on Twitter. Nearly ever major news outlet has covered Paul’s filibuster, which delayed the confirmation of President Obama’s CIA nominee John Brennan.

Flying death robots may be a popular concept in movies, but the issues raised by the U.S. drone program had been confined to the fringes of political debate. Paul and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee had been working with some of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats on civil liberties for months, starting with last year’s congressional votes on the National Defense Authorization Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments.

National security reporter Eli Lake dubbed Paul and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden the “drone odd-couple,” noting that they called themselves the “Checks and Balances Caucus.”

“For some time now, Wyden and Paul—along with two other senators, Republican Mike Lee of Utah and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado—have been working together to try to curb the broad authorities the Obama administration has asserted in the war on terror,” Lake wrote.

There was a strange bedfellows element to Paul’s drones filibuster as well. It attracted the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and Code Pink, in addition to tea party groups like FreedomWorks. Wyden’s participation made it a bipartisan affair.

But the biggest development was the support from Republican senators. In addition to Lee and fellow tea partier Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson all joined with Paul.

Few of those senators had ever expressed much interest in the drone program before, and several of them voted against Paul on recent high-profile civil liberties votes, such as the indefinite detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act. By the end of the filibuster, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had aligned himself with Paul.

“Frankly, it should have been answered a long time ago,” McConnell said of Paul’s question to the Obama administration about drone strikes in the United States.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus urged all GOP senators to go to the floor to help Paul. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a fundraising effort based on Paul’s filibuster.

Former South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint also sent out a supportive tweet. DeMint is now president-elect of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has frequently supported a strong executive in wartime.

It is likely that an outpouring of support for Paul from conservatives on social media motivated some Republicans to get involved, as criticism of executive power during the war on terror was unpopular in the party under President George W. Bush. But since Obama has been commander-in-chief, there has been a bit of a partisan role reversal.

A Reason-Rupe poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed it was unconstitutional to launch drone strikes against American citizens suspected of terrorism. Interestingly, Democrats were least likely to hold this view, with just 44 percent saying such actions were unconstitutional. By contrast, 65 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents thought it was unconstitutional.

Democrats balked at a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that domestic drone strikes against American citizens were impermissible.

Paul also worked behind the scenes to recruit Republicans to his side. His desire to win GOP backing for his Brennan campaign was a factor in his votes against cloture for defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, which perplexed some of Paul’s antiwar supporters. Paul ultimately voted to confirm Hagel.

Not all Republicans were pleased. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, fresh from having dinner with the president, said, “This idea that we’re going to use a drone to attack a citizen in a cafe in America is ridiculous.”

Paul mentioned cafes several times in his remarks. Although Obama and Brennan were the main targets of Paul’s filibuster, many of the arguments he rebutted during his hours on the floor — such as the idea of the American homeland being a battlefield and “Shut up, you don’t get a lawyer” — have been made by Graham.

It is unclear what impact this will have on Senate Republican voting habits. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney observed, “even when politicians move for opportunistic or partisan reasons, they move, and the bounds of permissible dissent move with them.”

Paul spoke nearly 19,000 words in just the first two hours of his filibuster, according to unofficial transcripts released by his office.

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