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.

Video grab of Senator Rand Paul as he speaks on the Senate floor to prevent a vote on the nomination of John O. Brennan.
In this video grab, Sen. Rand Paul speaks to prevent a vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA directoron the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Courtesy of C-SPAN

It started with a tweet. Nearly three hours into Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster—a protest of John Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA, at least until the Obama administration answered more questions about drone warfare—Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s press office tweeted that he was coming to the floor. When Lee arrived, he asked a question, and Paul gave him the floor. Photographers and reporters watching C-SPAN cameras lost the picture of Paul and sprinted down marble stairs to the doors of the Senate to catch him leaving.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

He wasn’t leaving. When a senator exercises his right to filibuster, he has to stand at his desk. He can’t sit. He can’t relieve his bladder. That’s what makes a real, talking filibuster so difficult and so rare that a reporter who joined the Capitol Hill beat in January 2011 had never seen one. The last extended speech, by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, briefly held up the 2010 lame duck tax-cut compromise. That speech became an insta-book, thanks to The Nation.

As media bait that speech had nothing on the #Randpage. Paul had warned for weeks that he would “use every procedural option at my disposal to delay” Brennan’s confirmation. He arrived in the Senate on Wednesday with a black binder packed with drone-skeptic articles and quoted from the Atlantic, Esquire, National Review, and the Guardian. Within hours, reporters who rarely covered drone policy were live-tweeting Paul quotes. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a #StandWithRand fundraiser for senators who “remained committed to upholding the values and the mandates of the Constitution.”

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Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley watched this unfold with deep sympathy and deeper irony. Not two months had passed since the Senate bucked him—and 50 of his peers—and punted on filibuster reform. Most modern filibusters consist of 41 (or more) senators voting “no” on cloture, preventing debate on a nomination or bill. Merkley and a posse of young senators wanted to alter that so that every filibuster meant standing up and “talking through the weekend,” really debating each other.

“If a person’s going to make a stand on a nomination, this is the way to do it—the way Sen. Paul is doing it,” Merkley said. “The American people can watch this and weigh in on whether he’s a hero or a bum. That’s reasonable. That honors the traditions of the Senate.”

Merkley contrasted that with the filibuster that happened right before Paul’s speech, one that got perfunctory media attention. For the third time, Democrats tried to advance the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. For the third time she got a majority of “aye” votes but couldn’t break the 60-vote cloture threshold.

“That took no time or energy from any member,” Merkley said. “It had no impact on the American people. It had no accountability. From the time that leadership struck its deal on the filibuster, they talked about the need for comity. And what we’ve seen since then is a 100 percent, all-out effort to paralyze this body. We’ve seen that in 43 Republican senators saying they would support a filibuster of anyone nominated to run the (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). We saw it in the first-ever filibuster of a defense secretary.”

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