WASHINGTON – Call it Rand’s Stand: A nearly 13-hour stall tactic on the Senate floor that thrust a tea party hero back into the national spotlight – a real-life version of the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of President Obama’s pick for CIA director was the latest notable move by the son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul.
A freshman senator, Rand Paul is a growing political force in his own right. The eye doctor challenged the Republican Party’s establishment in his state to win his seat in 2010 and now commands attention as a defender of limited government.
Paul, a critic of Obama’s aerial drone policy, started his long speaking feat just before noon Wednesday by demanding that the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring him the unmanned aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens.
“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul said.
At 12 hours 52 minutes, the filibuster was roughly the same length as the six “Star Wars” films combined.
Two conservative Republican stalwarts, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, took Paul to task Thursday on the Senate floor. But Holder complied with Paul’s request, sending him a brief note saying the president does not have the authority to use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on American soil if the citizen is not engaged in combat.
The Senate voted Thursday afternoon to confirm John Brennan as CIA director, 63-34.
“We worked very hard on a constitutional question to get an answer from the president,” Paul said after voting against Brennan. “It may have been a little harder than we wish it had been, but in the end I think it was a good healthy debate for the country to finally get an answer that the Fifth Amendment applies to all Americans.”
Thirteen Republicans voted with 49 Democrats and one independent to give Brennan, who has been Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, the top job at the nation’s spy agency. He will replace Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.
Paul’s performance – marked on Twitter by the hashtag #StandWithRand – turned into a trending topic on the social media site and prompted a torrent of phone calls from tea party supporters urging senators to support him.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee used the filibuster to raise about $75,000 for candidates.
Paul first stepped onto the national stage in 2010 when he vanquished Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s chosen Kentucky candidate in a GOP primary.
Since then, he’s embraced the popularity he has in the tea party and has inherited his father’s libertarian-leaning political network, built over two failed Ron Paul presidential runs.
All that has stoked belief inside GOP circles that Paul may be positioning himself for a future national campaign, possibly as early as 2016.
Paul, 50, has been difficult to pigeonhole in the Senate. He was one of four Republicans to support Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, yet he used his tea party response to Obama’s State of the Union address to blast what he called the president’s belief in more debt and higher taxes.
Tea party activists say his latest move has energized their ranks and raised his profile.
“He is our liberty warrior,” said Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express.
Paul, who made do with water and candy bars during his filibuster, said he recognized he couldn’t stop Brennan from being confirmed. He said the nomination fight was about raising questions over the limits of the federal government.
Lasting past midnight, the filibuster brought a dozen of Paul’s colleagues to the floor. McConnell, himself running for re-election in Kentucky, congratulated him for his “tenacity and for his conviction.” Tea party-backed lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas read Twitter messages from supporters.
Paul said he would have tried to break South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s filibuster record of more than 24 hours but recognized his physical limits. In an interview with radio host Glenn Beck on Thursday, Paul joked that he considered using a catheter. Even Democrats offered admiration for his stamina.
“What I have learned from my experiences in talking filibusters is this: To succeed, you need strong convictions but also a strong bladder,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “It’s obvious Sen. Paul has both.”
During his talkathon, Paul had suggested the possibility that the government would have used hellfire missiles against anti-war activist Jane Fonda or an American sitting at a cafe. During the height of the Vietnam War, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam and was widely criticized by some in the U.S. for her appearances there.
McCain derided that notion of an attack against the actress and argued that Paul was unnecessarily making Americans fear that their government poses a danger.
“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.
McCain found himself in the odd position of defending Fonda over her July 1972 trip to Hanoi that earned her the derogatory nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
“The use of Jane Fonda’s name does evoke certain memories with me, and I must say that she is not my favorite American, but I also believe that, as odious as it was, Ms. Fonda acted within her constitutional rights,” said McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5 1/2 years.
“And to somehow say that someone who disagrees with American policy and even may demonstrate against it is somehow a member of an organization which makes that individual an enemy combatant is simply false. It is simply false.”
Graham expressed incredulity that Republicans would criticize Obama on a policy that Republican President George W. Bush enforced in the terror war.
“People are astonished that President Obama is doing many of the things that President Bush did,” Graham said. “I’m not astonished. I congratulate him for having the good judgment to understand we’re at war. And to my party, I’m a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war.”