By Emily Goodin - 03/19/13 11:45 PM EDT
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) was at dinner when she got the call: could she return to the Senate to preside during Sen. Rand Paul’s epic filibuster?
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) had already gone home for the evening when his phone rang, with a request to come back and wield the gavel while the Kentucky Republican spoke.
The role is carried out by the majority party and is usually the duty of the freshman lawmakers. Any time the Senate is in session, a presiding officer is required to be in the chair to oversee all the activity on the floor and make sure the rules are followed and enforced.
Shifts are assigned ahead of time, but the Democratic cloakroom ran into a problem on the day of Paul’s filibuster: the presiding schedule ended at 9 p.m. and the Kentucky senator spoke much longer into the night.
Heitkamp was in the chair that morning, at 11:46 a.m., when Paul started speaking.
Her first thought when he started talking: “That it’s going to be a long filibuster,” she told The Hill.
In fact, she was so sure he was going to go through the night that she volunteered for extra shifts.
“Before I went home for the night I had the office call the cloakroom and say ‘I think he’s going to go a very long time and I can come back or I can stay around and relieve whoever is in the chair?’ ” she said.
“They said they didn’t think he was going to go past 9 (p.m.) but I said, ‘I’m not so sure.’ ”
Heitkamp turned out to be right.
She got the call to come back, as did Schatz.
“I was called at my apartment by the cloakroom (staff),” he told The Hill, noting he was happy to return to the Capitol to work.
“It was a historic moment,” he said, adding it was nice for his constituents, who were able to watch him in action. “Because of the time difference, lots of people in Hawaii were watching.”
Just as Paul was subject to the rules of the Senate — he couldn’t sit down or stop talking — the presiding officer has restrictions, too. He or she isn’t allowed to leave the chair and is not allowed to use electronic devices.
Heitkamp and Schatz started switching off at 9 p.m., going until shortly after midnight, when Paul stopped talking.
“We started with hour shifts and ended up half-hour shifts,” said Schatz, who was in the chair to gavel Paul’s filibuster to an end.
Heitkamp noted the Kentucky senator had one advantage they did not.
“He could move around, and when you are in the chair, you are in the chair,” she noted.
Freshmen are usually given presiding duties so they can learn the rules of the Senate and get to know the floor staff and their fellow senators.
On special occasions, the vice president, who is president of the Senate, will be in the big chair. Vice President Biden, for example, oversaw the swearing-in of new senators on the first day of the 113th Congress.
And, at times, it’s not a senator presiding. During impeachment trials, the chief justice of Supreme Court oversees the chamber. William Rehnquist did that duty in 1999, during then-President Clinton’s trial.
Heitkamp and Schatz weren’t the only ones who presided during the nearly 13 hours Paul held the floor.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) did three hours total over two different shifts.
“I think anytime, whether you agree with someone or not, when you have somebody who’s put that much effort into holding the floor, they deserve your attention, so I just tried to pay attention to what he had to say,” he told The Hill.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), elected in 2006, is not required to preside anymore, but he still puts in his time.
“I preside one hour a week by choice because my class isn’t required to but I enjoy it,” he said.
He, like most of the other senators The Hill spoke to, noted even though they don’t always agree with Paul, they admired his resilience.
“It was some overreach but I liked that he had the guts to do a real filibuster,” Brown said.
Often times, presiding over the Senate can allow time for a lawmaker to catch up on paperwork. It can also give members a bit of a breather because they can’t bring their smartphones with them — and staffers (except for those with floor privileges) can’t bother them.
But Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who also presided for an hour that day, says he tries to pay attention to the lawmakers who are speaking.
“I do my best to pay attention even though my staff gives me a great big folder of things to read, letters to mark up and things to review before whatever my next meetings are. They view it as time for me to do reading and I understand that — they’re trying to get hundreds of pieces of paper in front of me — but I think there is real value in listening to the views expressed.”
Heitkamp sees it the same way.
“Whereas some people see presiding as a little bit of grunt work, I’ve really enjoyed presiding in the Senate and having that opportunity to listen not only to the majority but to the Republicans,” she said, adding, “I’ve rarely seen a speech that is not heartfelt.”