Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) epic 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan for CIA director finally came to an amicable resolution Thursday, but not before sparking a battle within the Republican Party hierarchy — the latest in a series of internal struggles the party has faced since the election.
On Paul’s side is the right-wing apparatus and their darlings in Congress — notably Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), who joined the filibuster. They were delighted by Paul’s highly public confrontation with the White House and cheered him on until the very end.
On the other side are the GOP foreign policy hawks, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are Washington’s chief guardians of broad executive power when it comes to dealing with the country’s enemies.
They were furious with Paul’s attacks on President Obama’s drone policy.
“To somehow allege or infer that the President of the United States is going to kill somebody like Jane Fonda, or somebody who disagrees with the policies, is a stretch of imagination which is, frankly, ridiculous,” McCain said Thursday morning on the Senate floor.
He read from a scathing Wall Street Journal editorial declaring that “if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about.”
That angered the wealthy conservative activist group FreedomWorks, which called McCain’s remarks “rude and out of line,” and slammed him for “schmoozing with President Obama over dinner” while Paul was mounting his “courageous filibuster.”
FreedomWorks was among the biggest cheerleaders of Paul’s filibuster and, along with the Heritage Foundation, helped light up news and social media with their passionate support. The intensity of the push was noticed by Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who urged all Republican senators to “please go to the floor and help out” Paul. Fourteen of them went, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Infuriated by McCain’s remarks the following morning, FreedomWorks proceeded to issue an action alert calling on its members to demand an apology from McCain. It encouraged its proclaimed 4 million members to send a letter to McCain.
“Your criticism of Sen. Paul’s brave filibuster is shameful,” the draft letter read. “No American statesman would support the assassination of an American without proper due process. The President can’t just suspend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Our founding fathers would not approve of President Obama’s unprecedented authority grab and neither should you.”
Graham backed up McCain, accusing his fellow Republicans of hypocrisy. “But to my Republican colleagues,” he said, “I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee boasted Thursday afternoon that Paul’s filibuster had already helped the group raise over $75,000.
FreedomWorks’ gripes were echoed by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who accused Graham of being too cozy with Obama on not just drones but budget issues and immigration. She called the choice between Graham and Paul “[a] line in the sand.”
Conn Carroll, a writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, dubbed him “Lindsey Grahamnesty” — a reference to his support for normalizing the status of illegal immigrants.
Paul fired back at McCain and Graham during an appearance on Fox News, saying they “think the whole world is a battlefield, including America.” “That’s not my understanding of the way America works,” he said, arguing that the Bill of Rights guarantees due process.
In the afternoon, Paul received what he deemed a satisfactory answer to his question from the Obama administration on the parameters of its drone powers, and said that as a result, he would let Brennan’s nomination move forward. But Carroll liked what he saw of the internal Republican battle unfolding before him.
McCain/Graham vs @senrandpaul is exactly what the GOP needs. We need to have more of these debates out in the open.— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) March 7, 2013
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.