After a long day on Capitol Hill Wednesday, starting with Sen. Ted Cruz's questioning of Attorney General Eric Holder, and continuing through Sen. Ran Paul's filibuster of John Brennan's confirmation as CIA Director, both sides of the drone debate seemed to have learned a great deal, moving towards a shared, principled approach.
Cruz succeeded, at the outset, in producing an admission from Holder that the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil who were not an "immediate threat to life or bodily harm" would be unconstitutional.
Paul made the same point on the Senate floor, and further insisted that the Obama administration owed the American people a clear declaration that it agreed there were constitutional limits to the executive power it had claimed for itself.
Late in the filibuster, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) convinced Paul that the fact that a terrorist might be far from the field of battle was not enough to indicate that he was not an "imminent" threat. He posed the question: was Osama bin Laden an imminent threat when U.S. Navy Seals killed him in his bedroom? "Touché," Paul replied.
For Cruz, that did not dispose of the central constitutional problem. Even if Osama bin Laden had been a U.S. citizen at home in his U.S. apartment, he said, that would not have allowed the U.S. government to use a drone to fire a missile at him, because he would have been protected by the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.
Regardless, both sides of the debate seem to have learned something. Those favoring broad presidential power to fight terrorism had to confront the limits imposed by the Fifth Amendment. Those opposing the use of drones had to face the fact that the distinction between non-combatants and unlawful combatants is often very murky.
After a day of argument, and nearly 13 hours of a "talking" filibuster, the nation finally had an open debate about an issue that has vexed our politics for years--and which, once President Barack Obama came to power, many Democrats were quite willing to set aside. With the public airing of views, the prospects for a resolution that conforms to the Constitution are much brighter.
For that, Sens. Cruz and Paul can claim credit, and honor.