Rand Paul emerges on GOP civil war's front line

If Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., keeps pace into 2016 promoting his non-interventionist foreign policy, the Republican Party is looking at its own version of "the anti-war, left-wing Democrats of the 1960s that nominated George McGovern and destroyed their party for almost 20 years," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Sunday.

After the House last week narrowly rejected a measure that would have ended the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, debate has continued to rage on about how to most effectively balance liberty with national security interests. Paul plays kingpin to the minority camp backing "civil disobedient" Edward Snowden, whose leak of government surveillance programs jump-started the conversation; a position King says doesn't belong in the GOP.

"This is an isolation streak that's in our party. It goes totally against the party of Eisenhower, Bush. I mean we are a party of national defense. We're a party who did so much to protect the country over the last 12 years," King said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"When you have Rand Paul actually comparing Snowden to Martin Luther King or Henry David Thoreau - this is madness."

Paul's rogue approach to national security - an apple from the tree of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, a longtime libertarian hero - has afforded members of the Republican "old guard" a rare opportunity to rebuke the relatively fledgling branch of conservatism that took Capitol Hill by storm beginning in 2010. Beleaguered ever since by the tea party's stringent stands, some Republicans seem to spy an opening to recover their party.

Last week, King announced he is looking at possibly mounting a White House bid to counter the likes of Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another tea party favorite: "Their policies would be damaging to the country," the Long Island lawmaker said. "I don't want over the next year, 18 months, two years, for the Republican foreign policy debate to be dominated by people like Sen. Rand Paul."

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., too - who often tops GOP presidential short lists - last week condemned the growing "strain of libertarianism" in the party. Alluding to the many terror plots that have been thwarted by the government snooping programs, Christie argued those engaging in an "esoteric" debate about civil liberties might feel differently if they sat down with those widowed and orphaned by the 9/11 terror attacks.

"This strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought," Christie said during a panel discussion with several other Republican governors at the Aspen Institute. Asked if he was referring specifically to his potential 2016 rival Paul, the New Jersey Republican replied, "You can name any number of people, and he's one of them."

After a fundraiser in Nashville Sunday night, Paul fired back saying Christie's position on national security hurts the GOP and that the spending priorities of Christie and King are more harmful to national security, referring to their call for extra federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, according to the Associated Press. 

"They're precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and their 'Gimme, gimme, gimme - give me all my Sandy money now."' Paul said. "Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense."

King later told the AP that Paul's criticism of Sandy aid "indefensible."

"This was absolutely life or death money that was essential to New York and New Jersey," King said.

But ire toward Paul's extreme hands-off-government platform isn't new - just amplifying. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the floor in March to brand the nearly 13-hour filibuster that made Paul a household name and earned accolades even from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as nothing more than a "political stunt" used to "fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined McCain, singling out in particular a line repeated by Paul several times: Will the president OK a drone strike on an American sitting at a U.S. coffee shop drinking a cappuccino?

"I find the question offensive," Graham said, arguing that it "cheapens the debate" on U.S. drone use. "I do not believe that question deserves an answer."

"...To take this debate into the absurd," Graham continued, "is what I object to."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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