An unusual scene played out Wednesday on the Senate floor as an old-fashioned talking filibuster was waged against President Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA.
At first the filibuster, staged by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was greeted with skepticism. For the first three hours, he railed alone against Obama’s refusal to rule out drone strikes on American soil.
But as the day went on, one Republican senator after another pledged support to Paul’s cause and made their way down to the Senate floor.
“Americans have every reason to be concerned any time the government wants to intrude on life, liberty or prosperity,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who was the first Republican to join Paul’s filibuster. “We’re talking here about the sanctity of human life.”
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Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), John Cornyn (Texas), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) added more voices to Paul’s crusade, hammering the Obama administration’s ambiguous responses to direct questions about the armed drone program.
Even a Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), got in on the act, saying he “appreciated” Paul’s attempt to draw attention to the issue.
“Every American has the right to know when their government believes they have the right to kill them,” Wyden said.
By mid-afternoon, major news sites were splashing Paul’s filibuster across their homepages and tracking it with live updates and video. “Randpage,” declared the conservative Drudge Report. “Revolt!” blared the liberal Huffington Post.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had hoped to have a confirmation vote for Brennan on Wednesday so that lawmakers could leave town and avoid travel delays from an expected snowstorm in the District.
But Paul was unyielding, and said he would not stop his filibuster until the president or Attorney General Eric Holder “put that in words” that they “will not kill non-enemy combatants” inside the United States.
“I will speak today until the president says, ‘no,’ he will not kill you at a café,” Paul said.
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.
Cruz commended Paul and other senators for “standing here today like a modern-day ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ” and said his only regret was that more lawmakers weren’t making the same effort.
Paul yielded the floor to applause at 12:39 a.m. on Thursday after nearly 13 hours.
Paul said he would have liked to have gone another 12 hours to break the record of former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), but Paul need to “take care of something you can’t put off in a filibuster,” referring to using the restroom.
“I’m hopeful that we have drawn attention to this issue, that this issue will not fade away, and that the president will come up with a response,” Paul said in his closing remarks.
The last talking filibuster in the Senate took place in 2010, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held the Senate floor for eight hours in protest of an agreement to extend Bush-era tax rates. That fiery speech has become known as the “Filibernie” in Washington lore.
The day before Paul’s filibuster, the Senate Intelligence Committee in a 12-3 vote approved Brennan’s nomination and sent it to the full Senate. Wyden and Rubio, who are both members of that panel, voted to advance the nominee.
A quick confirmation vote had seemed likely until Paul stepped in. Instead, a growing number of senators are demanding more information from the White House about the secretive armed drone program.
“I have been dumbfounded” at the White House’s inability to provide “a straightforward answer” on the drone program and its implications for operations inside the U.S., Chambliss said.
“We need the right information to ask the right questions,” Chambliss said, adding he would vote against Brennan’s confirmation when it comes before the full Senate.
“Congress and the public need to know what the rules are,” particularly when U.S. citizens are the target of lethal strikes, Wyden added.
“That’s not what our American democracy is about,” Wyden said.
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) had also considered blocking Brennan’s bid due to unanswered questions about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham said Wednesday that he would not block Brennan over the Benghazi attack, but would continue to press the issue in future hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Congressional opposition to the drone program began in February, when leaked Justice Department documents claimed the CIA and the Department of Defense have the legal right to take out terror suspects via drone strikes, even if those suspects happen to be U.S. citizens.
Paul said he wants Obama to define what standards would be used to justify a drone strike against an American on U.S. soil. Paul pointed to Vietnam War protesters who vocally sympathized with the enemy and questioned whether sympathizing was justification enough for the warrantless killing.
“Is objection to the policy of your government sympathizing with the enemy?” Paul said. “Are you just going to drop a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?” referring to the actress’s prominent anti-war stance during the Vietnam conflict.
“There are a lot of questions that are not being asked. ... I think there is a difference between sympathizing and taking up arms,” Paul said.
Holder attempted to soothe Paul’s concerns on Tuesday, saying the White House “has no intention” of launching drone strikes on American soil.
“The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront,” Holder wrote.
That said, the attorney general did not dismiss outright the possible use of military force on American soil in the face of a “catastrophic attack” like 9/11.
“Were such an emergency to arise, I would examine the particular facts ... before advising the president on the scope of his authority.” Holder said.
Before Wednesday’s filibuster, several Senate Republicans anticipated a much smoother ride for Brennan’s confirmation, compared to the partisan battle to confirm Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“I am sure there is going to be some opposition, but I do not think it is going to be as intense as it was with Secretary Hagel,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told The Hill last week.
“I think everyone feels Brennan is qualified — they may not like him, but he is qualified,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said at the time.
— Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.
— Updated at 12:47 a.m. on Thursday.