WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed John Brennan to be CIA director Thursday after the Obama administration bowed to demands from Republicans blocking the nomination and stated explicitly there are limits on the president's power to use drones against U.S. terror suspects on American soil.
The vote was 63-34 and came just hours after Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, held the floor past midnight in an old-style filibuster of the nomination to extract an answer from the administration.
Still, Brennan won some GOP support. Thirteen Republicans voted with 49 Democrats and one independent to give Brennan, who has been President Barack 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.
The confirmation vote came moments after Democrats prevailed in a vote ending the filibuster, 81-16.
In a series of fast-moving events, by Senate standards, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a one-paragraph letter to Paul, who had commanded the floor for nearly 13 hours on Wednesday and into Thursday.
"It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: 'Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" Holder wrote Paul.
"The answer to that question is no."
That cleared the way.
"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."
However, Paul's stand on the Brennan nomination and insistence that the Obama administration explain its controversial drone program exposed a deep split among Senate Republicans, pitting leader Mitch McConnell, libertarians and tea partyers against military hawks such as John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The government's drone program and its use in the ongoing fight against terrorists were at the heart of the dispute.
Though Paul held the Senate floor for the late-night filibuster, about a dozen of his colleagues who share his views came, too, to take turns speaking for him and trading questions. McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian who faces re-election next year, congratulated him for his "tenacity and for his conviction."
McConnell said in Senate remarks on Thursday, "The United States military no more has the right to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who is not a combatant with an armed, unmanned aerial vehicle than it does with an M-16."
Paul's filibuster echoed recent congressional debates about the government's authority in the anti-terror war and whether the United States can hold American terror suspects indefinitely and without charge. The disputes have created unusual coalitions as libertarians and liberals have sided against defense hawks.
The latest GOP split also underscored the current rift within the rank and file over budget cuts, with some tea partyers willing to reduce defense dollars to preserve tax cuts but longtime guardians of military spending fighting back.
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's constitutional rights over her July 1972 trip to Hanoi that earned her the derogatory nickname "Hanoi Jane."
"I must say that 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 5½ 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."
Graham, initially a "no" vote against Brennan, told reporters that the confirmation fight had become a referendum on the drone program and he planned to back the president's nominee.
As Graham spoke on the Senate floor, he stood before a sign that said al-Qaida had killed 2,958 Americans in the United States while drones had killed none.
The tea party-backed Paul, son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, first stepped on the national stage in 2010 when he vanquished McConnell's chosen Senate candidate in a GOP primary in Kentucky. Since then, he's 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 he may be positioning himself for a future national campaign, possibly as early as 2016.
Paul received a loud, standing ovation in the Senate chamber early Thursday morning when he ended his filibuster, with several House and Senate Republicans applauding his stand. More important for the GOP, the National Republican Senatorial Committee used Paul's effort for a fundraising appeal and took in donations in the "high five figures."
He became a Twitter sensation.
Graham, who is up for re-election next year, faced criticism from the tea party for attending a dinner with Obama Wednesday night rather than joining Paul in the filibuster. Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said Graham was "clearly on the wrong side of this issue and I think there will be consequences."
On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee had voted 12-3 to approve Brennan's nomination after the White House broke a lengthy impasse by agreeing to give lawmakers access to top-secret legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects overseas.
The Holder letter marked the administration's third concession in recent days in its attempt to bring the Brennan nomination to a vote.
Earlier this week, the White House gave Republicans documents relating to last year's deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.