How Sen. Rand Paul’s Filibuster Won the Day

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 6 2013 7:02 PM

Everybody Loves Filibusters

At least the way Sen. Rand Paul does them.

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Paul had joined both of those efforts. His vote against cloture on Chuck Hagel made some libertarians furious, but Paul explained that he was trying to use the delay to coax more drone answers from the White House. The experience left him burned. After winning a 12-day delay, most Republicans went back to their states and frittered time away. They got a few answers from Hagel about whether he’d said cruel things about Israel, shrugged, and moved on.

That led right into Paul’s filibuster of the Brennan nomination. He understood the value of high dudgeon and infinite time to talk. “I will speak until I can no longer speak,” said Paul at the top of his speech. “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

What followed, for more than six hours, was a plain-talking series of arguments, precedents, and hypotheticals about an opaque issue: Can the executive branch assassinate American citizens without due process? “The 1947 National Security Act says the CIA doesn’t operate in our country,” Paul said. “Nobody questions if planes are flying towards the Twin Towers whether they can be repulsed by the military. Nobody questions whether a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled. They don’t get their day in court. But if you are sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Mich., if you happen to be an Arab-American who has a relative in the Middle East and you communicate with them by email and somebody says, ‘Oh, your relative is someone we suspect of being associated with terrorism,’ is that enough to kill you?”

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After three hours, as the media perked up, Paul was joined by Lee, then by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who said that Paul was “standing here today like a modern Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” After four hours he was joined by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who’d been able to see some classified drone legal arguments from the administration. Wyden had always planned on speaking; now, he was doing it with an inordinate number of people watching and tweeting. Senators who rarely agreed with Paul got up to help him tease out his arguments. “We ought to take out bad guys or guys who are about to do us harm,” said retiring Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. “I think that’s been your position all along, that with due process, we ought to let that happen.”

It looked like a debate that altered the day’s media coverage. It didn’t look like another drive-by filibuster of a judicial nominee. In an interview with Roll Call—conducted before the Paul speech—Democratic whip Sen. Dick Durbin tried to explain how badly that second sort of filibuster had been broken.

“If this is an indication of where we’re headed,” he said, “we need to revisit the rules again.”