by ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis
(Providence, Rhode Island) – One political event managed to steal most of the headlines this week. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) engaged the U.S. Senate in a 13 hour filibuster. I thought it might be interesting to talk about that feared but little used political debate tactic that has become such a part of our history:
"The Origins" – The filibuster dates back to the first Senate in 1789 when provisions for "unlimited debate" were put forth in the rules. Actually, the House of Representatives also allowed filibusters for a time, but that rule was eventually abolished. The principle was that a lawmaker should be able to argue his or her case for as long as possible. Back then a two-thirds vote of the Senate could end a filibuster (today it's three-fifths, or 60 votes, also known as cloture). A group of Senators or an individual can debate until doomsday if they wish, unless cloture is invoked.
"Droning on About Drones" – Senator Paul droned on for 13 hours about whether President Obama had the authority to use drones to kill U.S. citizens on American soil. While Paul is a Tea Party Republican, he had the support of the ultraliberal group Code Pink, and even had notable liberals such as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) making sympathetic comments about his cause. Paul, who was blocking John Brennan's confirmation to be CIA Director, even had Leahy voting "no" on Brennan when the filibuster ended. Filibusters, it seems, can attract strange political bedfellows for a variety of reasons.
"Why No Changes? – In January, Democrats who have a 55 to 45 edge in the U.S. Senate were considering changes that would alter the filibuster rules drastically, but in the end they decided against the changes. Why? Well in Washington people fear being the minority party. The 2014 election looms with Democrats defending more seats in the Senate than Republicans (21-D versus 14-R). The chances of Democrats losing control of the Senate next year are very real. The filibuster has long been the lone weapon of the minority party to block legislation. Democrats don't want to lose that leverage should they become the minority party once again, just as Republicans in the minority now don't want to lose that weapon. In Washington, DC you always have to be looking over your shoulder.
"The Record Books" – The longest filibuster in history goes to Senator Strom Thurmond (D-South Carolina) who tried to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957, by talking on the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes. By the way, Senators can talk about anything they want. Senator Huey Long (D-Louisiana) once spoke for 15 hours reciting Shakespeare and some of his favorite recipes. Famed Senators Henry Clay (D-Kentucky) and Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) both had filibusters in excess of 14 hours. Rand Paul's "debate" this week now ranks as the ninth longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history.
"The Weirdest" – What is it with Kentucky Senators? Both Henry Clay and Rand Paul are now in the record books, but the oddest achievement goes to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). The current Senate Minority Leader filibustered his own bill back in December 2012. It was an arcane procedural move – that was designed to force Democrats to vote on a debt ceiling bill – but the intricate "chess moves" he was trying to play out, I can't even begin to explain here. Suffice to say, it was the first, and only, "self-filibuster" of a bill in Senate history!
"The Launching Pad" – If nothing else, a filibuster will get you lots of national press. Such famous lawmakers as Henry Clay, Huey Long, Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd, owe some of their national notoriety to holding court during a long Senate filibuster. Senator Rand Paul is said to be seriously considering a run for the White House in 2016, now that his filibuster is over.
"Hollywood Nights" – The weirdest part of this week's debate was when Paul pondered whether the U.S. would have used a drone to kill actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda in the 1960s. It reminds me that perhaps the most famous filibuster ever - took place on the silver screen - and not the Senate floor. Jimmy Stewart, as the fictional Senator Jefferson Smith, filibustered during the movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (photo above). Even the real life filibusters like Rand Paul's this week; prove to be good political theater.
"Amazing Ops: Siege at Benghazi" - Speaking of movies, we are currently promoting development of, "Amazing Ops: Siege at Benghazi" about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya on September 11, 2012. If you would like to help see: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/historivision/amazing-ops-siege-at-b.... Co-Producer Jeff Hix was on "The John Batchelor Show" nationwide this week. Here is a link to the podcast. Jeff's interview is about 30 minutes into the hour: http://johnbatchelorshow.com/podcasts/2013/03/07/third-hour
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