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“I will speak until I can no longer speak.”
Those can be famous words when spoken on the Senate floor, worthy of — at minimum — a footnote in the annals of Senate history.
Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday was the latest to utter such words in the chamber shortly before noon, announcing that he would begin a live, “talking filibuster” of President Barack Obama’s choice of John O. Brennan to be the next director of the CIA.
The Kentucky Republican’s unusual move to launch hours upon hours of extended speechmaking was predicated on his demand that the Obama administration affirm that it cannot carry out targeted killings of Americans on U.S. soil with drone strikes.
“I don’t rise to oppose John Brennan’s nomination simply for the person. I rise today for the principle,” Paul began. “The principle is one that as Americans we have fought long and hard for and to give up on that principle, to give up on the Bill of Rights, to give up on the Fifth Amendment protection that says that no person shall be held without due process, that no person shall be held for a capital offense without being indicted.”
As the hours went by, other senators joined him, asking Paul to yield for the ostensible purpose of asking a question. In reality, that gave Paul a brief respite from an otherwise lonely crusade. The first member to intervene was Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a tea-party-backed Republican like Paul, at the three hour and 10 minute mark. Others followed, including GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Just let me give you some free advice: keep some water nearby,” Rubio quipped in a jab at himself over his own conspicuous consumption of spring water during this year’s Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Rubio, who voted to advance Brennan’s nomination from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, said he thought Paul was asking a straightforward question of the administration and deserved a clear answer.
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to get consent to bring the debate to a close and allow votes on Brennan’s nomination before the end of the evening, Paul rebuffed him. Paul said he was prepared to vote immediately if he received answers about killings from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., but Reid, of course, said he could not speak for the Justice Department nor the White House.
No good filibuster talk-a-thon is without a reference to Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Jimmy Stewart portrays a young, idealistic senator who launches a filibuster that goes until he literally collapses on the floor of the chamber.
“I would note that your standing here today like a modern ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ [would] surely be making Jimmy Stewart smile,” Cruz said.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon lent bipartisanship to the filibuster effort. Wyden has expressed concerns about numerous Obama administration policies on civil liberties grounds. Wyden said he would support Brennan’s confirmation but backs Paul’s underlying inquiry.
Senators came and went throughout the day, with Democrats taking their usual turns in the presiding officer’s chair. At one point, as presiding officer Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., leafed through the Senate Manual, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy passed through the chamber, stopping to procure a piece of candy from a corner desk. The Vermont Democrat briefly chatted with Baldwin as the filibuster continued.
But Leahy was hardly alone in needing a quick chocolate pick-me-up. During the six o’clock hour, reporters rushed into the press gallery to observe Paul enjoying a candy bar that could be identified from outsiders watching on C-SPAN as a Snickers, perhaps the best ever example for their “Why Wait?” campaign.
Onlookers — reporters, staffers and visitors — came and went throughout the afternoon and into the evening, not knowing when the day began that they would see a Senate spectacle that hasn’t been attempted since Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., held the floor for more than eight hours as he sought to delay an extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2010. Former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato was famous for his 1992 talking filibuster — an attempt to save a Smith-Corona typewriter factory in upstate New York.
Perhaps more unusual, however, Paul’s talkfest was actually the second filibuster attempt of the day. Led by Republicans, the Senate failed to advance the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to be a D.C. Circuit Court judge. The specter of two filibusters in one day, as well as a previous attempted blockade against the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary, caused some Democrats to bemoan their lost opportunity to radically change filibuster rules at the beginning of this Congress.
But as the debate went on Wednesday evening, it was unclear what would cause Paul to relent: the loss of his own voice or the desire to speak to a different kind of TV camera. He was scheduled to appear on evening cable news programs. Those shows could, of course, pre-empt his interview segments to pick up the feed from the Senate floor.