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. Florida Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, both voted yes. Brennan 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.
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.
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. Rubio was among them.
During his filibuster, Paul had suggested the possibility that the government would have used Hellfire missiles against antiwar 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 United States.
McCain derided that notion of an attack against Fonda and argued that Paul was unnecessarily making Americans fear that their government poses a danger.
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, 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."