Opinion: In taking drone stand, Paul showed use, abuse of filibuster

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) created an Internet sensation last week with his 13-hour filibuster. In a rare alliance, anti-big government types in the Tea Party and left-wing, anti-authoritarians in Code Pink celebrated him as a principled hero daring to demand answers from the president on his controversial use of drones to kill people.

What a misguided view. In fact, Sen. Paul’s grandstanding is the latest illustration of how the GOP’s abuse of filibusters is crippling the Senate.

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The real hero in the Senate these days is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who is leading the fight to get the institution back on track by limiting the use of the filibuster. He is pressing for reform to once again allow 51 votes, a simple majority, to pass bills and confirm nominees.

The real problem with filibusters — and the one Sen. Merkley is fighting against — was on display last week when Senate Republicans silently filibustered the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Halligan won 51 votes in support of allowing a simple, “majority wins” vote on her nomination. But it takes a super-majority of 60 votes to end a filibuster.

Halligan’s story is just one sad episode in a larger tragedy. The GOP minority in the Senate has used a quarter of all filibusters in history to block votes on President Obama’s nominees. Thirty-two judicial nominees are in the same limbo as Halligan due to abuse of filibuster rules.

In addition, several major agencies including Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are being denied leadership as a result of the GOP blocking votes on nominees.

And in recent weeks, the filibuster has been twisted to weaken Chuck Hagel, who survived a weeklong filibuster before winning confirmation as Defense secretary. The same threat was used against Jack Lew, the new secretary of the Treasury.

And then Sen. Paul upped the ante with his loud filibuster against John Brennan, who was later easily confirmed, 63-34, as CIA director.

The Wall Street Journal described Sen. Paul’s filibuster as a “political stunt.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last week’s filibuster succeeded only in bringing a “serious discussion …to the realm of the ridiculous.”

Those conservatives, who favor strong defense, complained about the Paul filibuster — despite the acclaim it received on Twitter — because it had nothing to do with reality. No American, including suspected terrorists, has ever been killed by a drone inside the United States. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pointed out that if an American terrorist was flying a plane into buildings, the president already has Congressional authority to kill such a terrorist.

But Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. Paul’s demagoguery simply took the overall GOP abuse of filibusters to an outrageous level.

Under Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the filibuster has turned the Senate into what freshman Democratic Senator Tom Udall (N.M.) calls a “graveyard for good ideas.” 

That is why Merkley and Udall want to end filibusters unless, like Paul, a member is willing to stand and talk and talk and talk. 

Merkley told me over a recent breakfast in the Senate dining room that he knows how a legislative body is supposed to work. He was Speaker of the Oregon State House of Representatives. The filibuster, he told me, is effectively breaking the machinery of the federal government.

Merkley’s cause is attracting outside help. Common Cause joined with some House Democrats last year and filed a lawsuit charging that the abuse of the filibuster was unconstitutional and the Courts must intervene.

The suit was thrown out in December on the grounds that the judiciary should not get involved with the legislature’s affairs.  

But public pressure is growing. The Brennan Center and the Alliance for Justice are supporting filibuster reform in a project called “Fix the Senate Now.”

In one vivid chart on its website, www.fixthesenatenow.org, the group shows a record 385 cloture motions filed in the Senate since the Democrats took control in 2006. The previous record occurred between 1994 and 2000 when just 222 cloture motions were filed. 

Merkley believes he had the votes to reform Senate rules and limit the power of the filibuster in January at the start of the new Congress. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided not to allow a vote. Reid explained he did not want to make the Senate into a smaller version of the House, where it is hard for individual members to express concern due to the strict control by the majority party.

One possibility for Merkley is passing a rule requiring any filibuster to produce the 41 votes necessary to prevent cloture. That will put the pressure on them instead of having proponents pressed to produce the 60 votes necessary to vote.

This fight over the filibuster in the Senate is just beginning.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.