When Rand Paul – the junior Republican Senator from Kentucky and flag-bearer for the US libertarian movement long championed by his father Ron – began speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday morning, everyone expected him to criticise the Obama administration for its deadly unmanned drone programme.
No one, though, expected him to keep going for nearly twelve hours.
Paul has been a vocal critic of the drone policy, and used a debate over the the President’s decision to nominate John Brennan, his national security advisor and architect of the expanded program, to lead the CIA as a occasion to highlight his concerns. He was particularly incensed by the administration’s suggestion earlier this week that under certain circumstances it could countenance the use of deadly drone strikes against Americans on US soil. Today, in the wake of Paul’s stand, the US Attorney General Eric Holder clarified that the President does not have the authority to use a weaponised drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.
Paul nonetheless scored a symbolic victory by publicising his opposition to the administration’s drone policy. By hogging the Senate floor for a day, he didn’t block the Brennan nomination - the Senate voted 63-34 to approve the President's choice today. But Paul did succeed in delaying the vote, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday.
Paul, a favorite of the right-wing Tea Party movement, launched what in Congressional jargon is known as a talking filibuster, a procedural quirk of the American legislative system where a lone Senator with the enough stamina can keep the chamber from voting on key measures by talking and talking, and then talking some more.
The only way to override a filibuster is if a clear majority of the other Senators - at least 60 in the 100-strong chamber - move a motion to end it.
To begin with, Paul drew little attention. The Senate chamber was mostly empty on Wednesday morning, and he was expected to finish his speech and allow the vote to go ahead as planned in the afternoon. But as it became clear that he wasn’t about to give up, Paul drew support from a host of Republicans, who gave him momentary breaks by posing questions. Under Senate rules, a filibustering lawmaker can pause by yielding the floor to questions. Ron Wyden, a liberal Democratic Senator, also took part in the symbolic protest against the administration’s deadly policies.
Starting just before noon and ending shortly after one in the morning, Paul clocked up more than 12 hours on the Senate floor. “I’m very tired,” he said afterwards, according to Politico. “My legs hurt, my feet hurt, everything hurts.”
Still, he was far short of the record set by Strom Thurmond who went on for just over 24 hours in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.