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, Mr. Paul, R-Ky., was showered with praise Thursday by both the Tea Party movement and provocateurs of the peace group Code Pink. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also R-Ky., praised Mr. Paul's conviction.
Mr. Paul, a libertarian in the mold of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, 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 Senate floor Thursday to defend President Barack Obama's aggressive use of drones against al-Qaida and its affiliates, and to suggest that Mr. 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," Mr. McCain said. "They're not. But we are in danger from a dedicated, longstanding, easily replaceable-leadership enemy that is hellbent on our destruction."
Mr. 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 Wednesday afternoon and evening, drawing in part on a huge positive Twitter response 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 GOP senators showed up on the Senate floor late Wednesday night to support Mr. Paul's filibuster.
These included Mr. McConnell, who has been moving vigorously to shut down chatter about a potential Republican primary challenge to his re-election campaign next year, and Florida 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 Obama administration directly answered the question at the heart of Mr. Paul's filibuster. No, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter Thursday to Mr. Paul, the president does not have authority to use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on American soil who is not engaged in combat.
Mr. Holder did not say how the president would determine who is an enemy combatant. And he did not back off his statement Wednesday that the president has authority to pursue military action inside the United States in extraordinary circumstances, an assertion that helped set off Mr. Paul's filibuster.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Senate went on to address what Mr. Paul had been seeking to delay with his filibuster, confirmation of John O. Brennan as Central Intelligence Agency director. After Democrats threatened to keep in the Senate in session through the weekend to deal with the confirmation, Republicans allowed a quick vote, and Mr. Brennan was approved, 63-34.
Among those voting in favor of Mr. Brennan was Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Among no votes on the Brennan nomination was Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. He has been pressing the White House to release memos to his committee setting out the administration's legal rationale for drone strikes against U.S. citizens, but the White House so far has provided the memos only to the Intelligence Committee.
Best known in foreign policy circles until now for being on the losing end of 90-1 Senate vote last year on Iran policy, Mr. 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.