Filibusting

posted at 10:41 am on March 7, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

By this time, most of you who stayed up for the nearly thirteen hour dance marathon in the United States Senate last night are probably up and around, or at least wiping the sleep out of your eyes. AP had some ongoing coverage of the spectacle as it unfolded, but now that it’s done I’m left with more than a few questions.

Right up front I will just say that there was nothing trivial about the subject Senator Paul was addressing, nor the method he chose to bring it to light. Nobody should be treating this as some sort of a clown show or stunt, and I’m certainly not going to do so here. In addition to stopping a vote on a new CIA director, he was highlighting questions about the use of drone strikes involving US citizens. An actual filibuster is a rare beast indeed, and the meat at the core of Paul’s argument (which we’ll circle back to in a moment) is on the minds of many Americans for good reason.

But the mechanics of the thing occupied much of my thoughts as it was rolling out. The original purpose of a filibuster as it’s commonly understood, is to prevent a vote from taking place. The vote waiting in the wings was the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, a point that Senator Paul made himself quite early on.

“I’m here to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination to be director of CIA,” Paul announced, later vowing: “I will speak for as long as it takes.”

Fair enough. That’s his right as a member of the Senate and if he’s got the lung power to do it, then full steam ahead as far as I’m concerned. But less than five hours into the marathon speaking session, the state of the battle changed.

Nearly five hours into Paul’s filibuster, Reid threw in the towel, and said he hoped for a Thursday vote on Brennan’s nomination. “We’ll just finish this matter tomorrow,” Reid said. “We’re through for the night.”

Without unanimous consent, a final vote on Brennan could be pushed to next week.

Mission accomplished, to borrow a now infamous phrase. But the filibuster wound on for almost another eight hours. Why? With the vote called off, the job was done. And there’s only so many times you can rephrase the same set of arguments over and over again before it gets repetitive. I was left feeling as if the continued steamrolling was beginning to detract from the popular appeal of the senator’s decision to climb this mountain in the first place. Might it not have been better to yield the floor, save his voice and energy, and take it up again in the morning? And having thwarted the vote once – a vote which, let’s face it, is going to take place at some point – might he not simply use the mass appeal and attention drawn by the first five hours to gin up some serious PAC money and run national ads to bring more public attention to the question of drones and US citizens defined as enemy combatants? In the end, I simply don’t know why it went on for as long as it did.

As to the entire drone question, it’s good that Paul brought it front and center in the national debate. Of course, it probably left a lot of people with some conflicted feelings if they’re being truly honest with themselves. As I none too charitably quipped on Twitter last night, the people screaming about potential drone strikes on Americans who previously supported the Patriot Act remind me quite a bit of those who railed against the Patriot Act under Bush but are now strangely silent when Obama is the one calling the shots. (Both literally and figuratively.)

This would have been so much easier on everyone if it were another president named Bush proposing drone strikes on American citizens and a Democratic Senator Obama leading the charge against it. Then everybody could stay in their usual corners and come out swinging. But the faces and parties have changed, even as the tactics haven’t. Many years ago we opened a real can of worms when we began blurring the lines between criminals and soldiers with the idea of “enemy combatants.” Rand Paul wasn’t in the Senate at the time, so I’m not sure what his position was back then. I’ll assume it was the same for the sake of consistency. But for those who were around and engaged in this argument, this sets the stage for a whole new chapter in the saga. And maybe that was really the best thing Rand Paul accomplished with his now famous filibuster.


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