WASHINGTON — Over the last six months Republicans have undergone a remarkable transition, morphing from a hardline, defense-oriented party to one apparently willing to sacrifice that image for the sake of a high-profile political confrontation with President Obama.
Defense and national security have been sacred for decades in the Republican Party, and there's no evidence that will change anytime soon. But with Republicans in the House openly supporting the first significant cuts to the Pentagon's budget in more than a decade and members of the GOP Senate leadership team standing with Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster over the use of drones, a shift is now clearly underway.
Indeed how the party handled Paul's filibuster is a clear indication of the shifting landscape.
Although Wednesday's filibuster originally enjoyed only the support of conservatives, once it became clear that the conservative world was watching — and rooting for — Paul, a series of establishment figures rushed to his aid, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Conference Chairman John Thune. The Republican party's Senate political arm even raised money off the filibuster.
"He's one of the nicest people in the Senate, and he's always courteous, he's always proper, but he feels deeply, and my gosh, we all fight to uphold those rights," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of the party's institutionalists in the Senate and hardly a dove when it comes to national security issues. "Each senator has a right to feel the way they do, and he's sincere, he's dedicated, he's a very intelligent man, and in essence he won. So I thought it was pretty good," he said Thursday.
But Thursday morning also brought a backlash. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham took to the Senate floor and unleashed a barrage of attacks on their junior colleague.
"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," McCain said, while Graham chastised his colleagues who had joined Paul in his filibuster.
"To my Republican colleagues, I don't remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone … they had a drone program back then, all of a sudden this drone program has gotten every Republican so spun up," he said. "What are we up to here?"
Publicly, Thune and others sought to downplay the significance of the divisions.
"This isn't going to create a huge division among Republicans, no," the South Dakota Republican said.
"I wouldn't characterize it as major. I think there's obviously some differences of opinion within our conference about the drone program, and for most of us — and I was down there last night, mainly defending Sen. Paul's right to be able to get answers to his questions as part of the advise-consent rule of the Senate in the nomination process — and I think it's a legitimate question to have answered," Thune said.
Privately, however, Republicans argue there are indeed divisions, and potentially a broader shift underway in terms of the importance Republicans put on national security issues.
Pointing to the participation in the filibuster by McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn — both of whom face potential primary opponents next year — one conservative Republican bluntly said "there's no way those guys would be down there if it wasn't for the primaries.
Others, like Thune and Sen. Marco Rubio, also have potential 2016 presidential bids to consider, and maintaining a strong conservative image is critical for them at this point.
There is also the reality that Republicans simply don't like President Barack Obama and have made it clear they are willing to go to great lengths to confront him and his administration.
But crass political opportunism is only part of why Republicans suddenly are willing to support cutting defense spending or a national security related filibuster.
After all, if pandering to conservatives was all that was at stake, there have been plenty of chances over the last four years to do so. But previous movement leaders in the Senate, most notably former Sen. Jim DeMint, were never able to rally the kind of support that Paul was able to Wednesday evening for far easier political battles over earmarks or spending.
A senior Senate leadership aide acknowledged a shift has occurred, casting it as something of a course correction. According to the aide, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the party hunkered down into a strongly defense oriented mode.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, used it's considerable political capital, particularly in the in years immediately after the attack, to ride herd not only on the nation but also Republicans as it expanded defense spending and its own authority to fight whatever threats it saw fit.
"The talking points they used on you guys, they were using on us," the aide said, noting that former Vice President Dick Cheney "was up here every week" at the Senate luncheon pushing the conference to maintain discipline.
And it worked: spending on budget spending for the Defense Department ballooned and for years the costs of the wars were kept off the books so as to not break the back of the nation's finances.
At the same time Republican-controlled congresses worked hand in hand with the White House to pass sweeping new counter-terrorism laws, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other legislation expanding the executive branch's ability to conduct surveillance domestically.
All of those extensions were done under the threat from the White House that they were needed to stave off menacing outside forces poised to attack America, and opposition was not only frowned upon but punished.
When the late Sen. Arlen Specter raised concerns with warrantless wiretapping, he not only found himself in the cross hairs of neoconservatives and the administration, but his own leadership and colleagues who pressured the then-Republican to abandon his objections.
But after the 2006 election, the fever, so to speak, seemed to break, and with the Iraq war ostensibly over and operations in Afghanistan winding down, Republicans suddenly don't feel so beholden to the national security apparatus.
"Guys are willing to say no, we shouldn't spend so much money on this," the Senate Republican aide said of the shift.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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