Capitol Attitude

Senate poised to approve Obama court pick despite drone drama

May 12, 2014: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walks to the Senate floor at the Capitol in Washington.

May 12, 2014: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walks to the Senate floor at the Capitol in Washington.  (AP)

Harry Reid was ready for Rand Paul this time around. 

The Senate majority leader made sure that a Wednesday afternoon vote was set for appeals court nominee David Barron, effectively ruling out a sequel to the libertarian-leaning Paul's 13-hour filibuster against CIA Director John Brennan in March 2013. But while the Kentucky Republican senator spent only a half-hour speaking against the Harvard Law professor -- due to Barron's role in crafting the legal justification for the use of drones on American citizens abroad -- he did so with equal vigor. 

"I rise today to say there is no legal precedent for killing American citizens not directly involved in combat and that any nominee who rubber stamps and grants such power to a president is not worthy of being placed one step away from the Supreme Court," Paul said on the Senate floor. 

The Senate on Thursday appears set to confirm Barron, a former Justice Department official, to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. He barely squeaked by in an initial procedural vote, when two Democrats (Sens. Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin) joined all present GOP senators in opposing Barron. At 52-43, the margin would have been insufficient under previous Senate rules that required a threshold of 60 votes on nominations. 

Paul's erstwhile Democratic allies on the drone issue, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, initially joined him in holding up Barron's nomination and could have secured his defeat if they wanted to. But a last-minute gesture on the part of the White House -- in the form of its decision not to appeal a federal court order requiring the public disclosure of a redacted portion of the so-called "drone memos" -- ultimately placated them. 

Nevertheless, Wyden was sure to excoriate the Obama administration for "stonewalling" congressional oversight of the government's drone program. 

"It is unfortunate that it took Mr. Barron's nomination for the Justice Department to make these memos public," the Oregon Democrat said. "I have been frustrated over the past few years by the Justice Department's resistance to providing Congress with memos that outline the Executive Branch's official understanding of the law." 

At issue is a secret memo authorizing the use of a drone strike to target Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and a senior Al Qaeda commander who was killed in Yemen in 2011. Barron was in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which prepared the legal justification for the strike. 

Obama allies praised the administration for agreeing to release the memos -- which lawmakers had been able to access in a classified setting -- in some redacted form to the public. (Of course, it's worth noting that forcing the administration's hand was a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times.) 

But Paul and other critics dismissed the administration's announcement, arguing the memos should be released prior to the final Senate vote on Barron. Democratic leaders rebuffed the Republican's request to delay the vote. 

"Even if the administration releases a dozen Barron memos, I cannot support Barron," Paul said. "The debate is not about transparency. It is about the substance of the memos." 

For its part, the administration has yet to say when it will release the memos, and what exactly it will release. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.