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Paul's filibuster was still an idle notion when he sat down to a dinner of lasagna and garlic bread with his former political adviser Jesse Benton at his home in Bowling Green on Feb. 23. An opponent of the Patriot Act and other government intrusions on civil liberties, Paul had asked the Obama Administration to explain its decision to target a U.S. citizen tied to al-Qaeda for assassination in Yemen last year and sought assurance that the President would not use drone strikes against Americans at home. Paul got no satisfactory response. He told Benton he was thinking of holding up Obama's nomination of counterterrorism official John Brennan to run the CIA in order to make a stand on a constitutional principle: the right to due process.
Benton, who is married to Paul's niece, is a senior aide to Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican. Would McConnell support the idea? Paul asked. Benton went to his boss, who gave Paul a green light. And so at 11:47 a.m. on March 6, Paul stepped onto the Senate floor for a soliloquy that would stretch past midnight. "I will not sit quietly and let him shred the Constitution," he fumed.
The spectacle electrified Washington, where Senators often wage invisible filibusters from the comfort of their offices but rarely launch old-fashioned Jimmy Stewart--style talkathons. The hashtag #StandWithRand exploded on Twitter. By midafternoon, fellow Republicans began trickling into the chamber to spell Paul, who was subsisting on candy bars and sips of water, and join what was becoming the most cathartic assault on Obama since the 2012 election. Mark Kirk of Illinois took Paul an apple and a thermos of tea. Ted Cruz of Texas read tweets extolling the stand. ("Glad someone in the Senate has some spine," read one.) McConnell was watching a basketball game at around 10 p.m. when he flipped to C-SPAN, saw Paul flagging and headed back to the Capitol to make his own floor appearance.
Privately, many Republicans felt that Paul had stoked paranoia over a drone campaign they consider essential to national security. McCain denounced Paul's suggestion that a person "typing e-mails in a café" might be blasted by a drone as "ridiculous" and groused to the Huffington Post that "it's always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone."
Paul left the Senate floor just before 1 a.m. Brennan was confirmed in a bipartisan vote later that day, but only after Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter assuring him the President would not kill noncombatant Americans on U.S. soil--a "victory," as Paul put it, that burnished his sudden celebrity. Even Republicans who don't share his broader views feted his feistiness. "Nobody in the Republican Party has dared take this President on," Rush Limbaugh told him. "You did last night, and you're alive today to talk about it." Back in Kentucky, Paul milked his new reputation, warming up crowds by quipping that he planned to speak only for 10 or 11 hours. Former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt declared on Meet the Press that Paul had "arrived as a national figure."