WASHINGTON -- While some leading Democrats are reluctant to condemn the dragnet surveillance of Americans' phone records, the Republican Party has begun to embrace a libertarian shift opposing the spy agency's broad powers.
But the lines are not drawn in the traditional way.
The Republican National Committee and civil libertarians such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have joined liberals such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side of the debate -- a striking departure from the aggressive national security policies that have defined the Republican Party for generations.
On the other side, defending surveillance programs created under the Bush administration and continued by President Barack Obama, are Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and House and Senate leaders of both parties.
As a result, the debate over whether to continue the sweeping National Security Agency surveillance tactics has highlighted intraparty divisions that could transform national security politics. The split in each party could have practical and political consequences for the 2014 midterm elections. There are already signs that the debate is seeping into the next presidential contest.
Speaking Tuesday to New Hampshire voters, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., cited the spy agency's surveillance as another example of broad overreach in what he called Mr. Obama's "imperial presidency." He called for changes that would ensure that American people are represented at secret court proceedings that decide the scope of NSA surveillance. Mr. Issa stopped short of endorsing the plan to eliminate the bulk collection program, and Mr. Obama himself has endorsed more oversight, too.
Congress may address government surveillance this spring in one of its last major moves before members head home to focus on the November elections. But if Congress punts the surveillance debate to next year, it would resurface just as the presidential primary campaigns start.
The bulk collection of Americans' phone records was authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Program details were secret until June, when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that spelled out the scope of NSA activities. The law's bulk collection provision is set to expire June 1, 2015, unless Congress acts to renew it.
More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have become less willing to support invasive surveillance in the name of national security. Recent polls show a sharp decline in public support for NSA programs.
The Obama administration justifies continuing the surveillance program, in part, by pointing to Congress' continued support. In an effort to win back public trust, Mr. Obama has suggested some changes to provide more privacy protections and transparency, but not end the program.
Ms. Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic favorite should she seek the presidency, has been virtually silent on the NSA debate for months. Last fall, she called for a "full, comprehensive discussion" about the practices but defended surveillance, saying, "From my own experience, the information-gathering and analyzing has proven very important and useful in a number of instances." A Clinton spokesman declined further comment last week.
Mr. Paul, a prospective GOP presidential hopeful and Tea Party favorite, contrasted Ms. Clinton's stance with his aggressive opposition to Bush-era intelligence programs, as polls suggest that a growing majority of Republicans, especially Tea Party supporters, are deeply skeptical of the federal government.
"I think in 2016, if you had a more libertarian-leaning Republican, and you had someone like Hillary Clinton, I think you could actually completely transform where people think they are and what party people think they have allegiance for," Mr. Paul said at a recent Washington conference. Last week, he filed a lawsuit against Mr. Obama and others in the administration over the so-called 215 program.
The Republican National Committee in January approved a resolution "to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA's data collection programs." There was an immediate backlash from Bush-era Republican intelligence officials, who described the resolution in a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus as a dangerous "recipe for partisan oblivion."
Mr. Rubio this week said "we need to be careful about weakening" the nation's surveillance capabilities. He told the Tampa Bay Times that Americans' privacy expectations and rights need to be protected, "but we also need an effective surveillance capability. Every other country in the world, certainly those that are hostile to our interests, has robust intelligence programs."