Historic Debate Could Continue Into Friday

Posted November 13, 2003 at 9:07am

Don’t bet on getting a good night’s rest Thursday evening.

Almost 12 hours into what had been billed as a 30-hour debate on Democratic filibusters, one of the architects of the Republican attack delivered a new deadline for finishing up: 9 a.m. Friday.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), who was tasked by GOP leaders with organizing the marathon session, said shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday that he expected the debate to carry well into Friday morning, when the chamber would likely have a series of cloture votes on three stalled judicial nominations and a proposal to alter filibuster rules on nominees to the federal bench.

On such a timeline, the historic session would top out at roughly 39 hours and two full overnight sessions of debate on the nomination process.

Informed of Santorum’s prediction, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) shrugged and said he couldn’t be sure when the debate would end, then rushed off to make a 6 a.m. radio interview in the Hart Senate Office Building, where Republicans have installed a bank of conservative talk radio hosts in a fourth-floor office.

It’s unclear whether Frist and Santorum will be able to martial enough Republican comrades to keep the floor that long, but Democrats will have to make some serious changes to their planned schedule if the GOP does indeed does carry on to the opening of business Friday. Democratic aides said they weren’t sure how they would handle an additional nine hours of debate, but guaranteed they’d have at least one Senator on hand to object to any unanimous consent requests.

While the debate was heated and heartfelt throughout the night, the first 14 hours produced none of the shenanigans that some had expected, no 3 a.m quorum calls, no bed-check votes, no Senators sleep-walking in their pajamas past the Ohio Clock.

Despite the scripted nature of much of the debate, the night still had a historic feel to it, as crowds packed the gallery early in the evening and, even into the 1 and 2 a.m. hours, kept the gallery roughly a third full. Several hours after the debate began at 6 p.m. Wednesday, dozens of people waited in the rain outside the Capitol to get into the debate, many of them conservative activists.

Both sides passed out pins and stickers carrying their central message. Democrats wore pins that read “98 Percent,” a reference to the fact that they had so far approved roughly 98 percent of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Conservatives wore black T-shirts emblazoned with “Justice for Judges Marathon.”

It was an evening, night and morning of high political theater, if not concrete legislative action, full of passionate speeches and bleary-eyed staffers pumped up on an over-abundance of coffee and chocolate.

“The debate we launch tonight is fundamental to restoring fairness,” Frist declared shortly after 6 p.m., setting the stage for the marathon debate.

The session has been billed by Republicans as the latest in the methodical process Frist has laid out to try to slowly but surely ratchet up pressure on Democrats, trying to make the case that he has tried every avenue to break the filibusters. Some time next year, Frist may even try to resort to the so-called “nuclear option,” which would involve getting a ruling from a Republican occupying the President Pro Tempore’s chair that would declare filibusters of judicial nominations unconstitutional.

But that step is likely months away — if it ever comes to pass. The current marathon session is about trying to drive home political points, with each side playing predominantly to its core of support on the left and right. The debate, so far, has centered on the long-running themes that both sides have been promoting for several years: Republicans accusing Democrats of unprecedented obstructionism and Democrats accusing Republicans of ignoring real voters’ concerns in favor of issues that appeal to the GOP’s wealthy, conservative base.

The debate got off to a sharply partisan and slightly confusing start at 6 p.m., as Republicans marched into the chamber in unison from Frist’s office.

As Frist opened the debate with a 22-minute address, he and his fellow Republicans were greeted inside the chamber by several Democrats, including Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), who carried a 3-by-4-foot placard, one of the many charts Democrats displayed on the floor. While Frist spoke, Harkin held the placard up to show Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) what he had written on the back of it in red marker: “I’ll be home watching ‘The Bachelor.'”

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) interrupted the proceedings — which he promptly dubbed a “marathon, talkathon, blabathon” — to beseech Frist to instead return to pending appropriations bills rather than judges. He informed his colleagues he didn’t want to speak about judges: “At the moment I don’t anticipate having anything to say,” said Byrd, who holds the record for the single longest individual speech on the Senate floor, more than 14 straight hours filibustering a civil rights bill without ever yielding for a question.

Byrd still managed to take up 20 minutes of time, and by the time Frist had rejected Byrd’s request both sides were arguing over whether the octogenarian’s questions would eat into the Democratic debate time. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would say shortly after midnight on the floor, “I never thought in a 30-hour debate you’d have to fight to get a chance to say something.”

With time evenly divided, much of the night and morning were filled with a series of scripted speeches, with a pair of Republicans splitting the first 30 minutes of debate and a pair of Democrats splitting the bottom half of the hour.

The debate times unfolded remarkably as scheduled for a chamber that is notoriously unwieldy. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), for example, beginning his time slot just after midnight, asked the chair and learned that he had officially begun 15 seconds past midnight.

That point in the night brought the most debate-like format, as Sessions and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) jousted with Schumer and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) over the nature of the filibuster.

In pointing out that there had been a half-dozen cloture votes on judicial nominees forced by Republicans since 1968, Schumer noted that none of those cloture votes, which are used to break a filibuster, prompted any outcry from the GOP.

“Did my colleague object to the unsuccessful filibuster?” Schumer asked rhetorically, accusing the Republicans of only raising their voices now that they’re on the losing end of filibusters.

Sessions argued that those cloture votes were done to actually break a hold placed on a nominee, not to break a filibuster, and that each of those votes led to invoking cloture, except for the vote on then-Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas’ bid to become chief justice. “A hold is saying I am going to filibuster,” Schumer countered.

To which Sessions bellowed across the chamber: “No.”

Santorum made the most appearances on the floor over the night for Republicans. Frist made several appearances on the floor, and popped into a few press conferences as well.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also made a show of unity with his troops, helping lead the counterattack from 2 to 3 a.m. On the Democratic side, Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) held the longest consecutive time on the floor. Pryor, originally slated to go four hours from 1 until 5 a.m., instead got a reprieve at 4 a.m. Corzine helped lead the Democratic attack from 3 until 6 a.m.

The lowest ranking Democrat in terms of seniority, Pryor, 40, tucked in his children around 10 p.m. and headed for the Senate, first appearing on the floor at 12:47 a.m.

Afterward, a bit exhausted, Pryor admitted that, despite his opposition to the Republican tactics, the debate had been a sort of fun and freewheeling adventure.

“There is kind of a sense of accomplishment and purpose when you’re down on the floor arguing your case,” he said shortly after 4 a.m.

Still, Pryor said he recognized that the grandiosity of the affair was probably witnessed by very few Arkansans and wouldn’t mean much to his electoral prospects in the future.

Asked how many votes he might have gained from his constituents, Pryor said, “Zero. I just hope I didn’t lose any.”