Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul staged the longest talking filibuster in recent Senate memory from Wednesday into early Thursday, railing with his colleagues for more than 12 hours against what they called the danger of drone strikes to U.S. citizens on American soil.
In seizing control of the Senate, a bloc of conservatives led by the libertarian Paul successfully pushed a potential vote to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee to run the CIA off the day's agenda.
Paul began speaking at 11:47 a.m. on Wednesday and finally yielded the floor at about 12:39 a.m. Thursday, having stayed inside the Senate chamber and on his feet for that entire time.
"I would try to go another 12 hours and try to break Strom Thurmond's record, but there are some limits to filibustering and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here," Paul said.
Immediately after he finished, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced a motion to end debate on the nomination of John Brennan to run the CIA.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Paul said he hadn't done much preparation for what turned into a rare marathon talkfest.
"Well the weird thing is that we didn't really have a plan," he said. "We showed up this morning thinking [the Brennan] debate was going to be tomorrow... I hadn't planned on it. I didn't wear my most comfortable shoes or anything. I would have worn different shoes."
He did use some strategy: "I went to the candy drawer a lot of times, and I didn't drink much water, so I need some water," he said. A spokeswoman said Paul had not taken a steam bath as Thurmond had for his record-setting 24-hour filibuster.
"I'm very tired," he acknowledged. "My legs hurt, my feet hurt, everything hurts."
Paul's gambit initially surprised the Senate, many members of which had been prepared to vote to confirm Brennan to take over the spy agency earlier Wednesday. But as the day wore on, several of Paul's colleagues -- as well as one Democrat -- joined him to attack the Obama administration for its refusal to positively rule out the use of drones against Americans in the U.S. or to disclose more information about drones.
By nightfall, Paul's effort had gained the support of more of his colleagues, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. They joined him on the floor and used up chunks of time with quotes from Ronald Reagan, Shakespeare, and in the case of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, "The Godfather" and rapper Jay-Z.
Just short of the 12-hour mark, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called via Twitter for "all Republican US senators" to join the filibuster.
So, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin gave a speech as much about the dysfunctional Senate and the dangers of the national debt as about drone policy. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that the essential issue of liberty shouldn't divide the political parties. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona told Paul "the question you've asked is totally right and proper." And so on.
It may have been Paul's biggest moment so far in the Senate. He captured the attention of conservatives, libertarians and even liberals who have long questioned the legal authority of the Obama administration's use of drones for targeted killings.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared at the end of the workday Wednesday and attempted to move ahead with the Brennan nomination, but Paul said he would only back down with a written agreement from the president or the attorney general, vowing not to kill Americans with drones in the United States.
Reid shrugged and said the Senate would try again on Thursday.
Paul's filibuster was filled with red meat for the libertarian conservatives who form his base and that of his father, the former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Like-minded bloggers and Twitter users vowed to "Stand with Rand." And as the day wore on, Paul's colleagues joined him on the floor to ask discursive questions to give him some relief, including a potential 2016 presidential rival, Rubio.
At issue was a response Paul received this week from Attorney General Eric Holder to questions as part of the Brennan confirmation. Holder refused to rule out the possibility that, in extreme circumstances, the executive branch might order lethal force against an American inside the U.S., citing examples such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the day that if there had been anti-aircraft missiles positioned around New York and Washington on the day before the Sept. 11 hijackings, they might've enabled the president to destroy the airliners at the cost of hundreds of American lives, as compared with the thousands who were actually killed when they crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"What would we all give to have had those Patriot missile batteries available on Sept. 10, 2001 in New York and Washington. It would have meant we lost a planeload of American citizens and would have saved thousands" of lives, Holder said.
On drone strikes, Holder emphasized that the administration's position involved a "hypothetical" scenario and pointed out that the United States has never conducted a drone strike on its own soil, "has no intention of doing so" and that it was "unlikely to occur."
Moreover, Holder wrote, the administration "rejects the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat."
Nonetheless, Paul and his allies pounced.
"I find it quite puzzling that [the administration] didn't respond, 'Of course not, we never have in history of this country. We never will. The Constitution forbids it," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who grilled Holder in a Judiciary Committee hearing the same day. "It's remarkable that they treated it as a difficult question."
Paul, Cruz, Rubio, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mike Lee of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas and other Republicans turned what Holder's letter called a "hypothetical" that was "unlikely to occur" into an opportunity to inveigh against executive overreach and praise constitutionally limited power.
Again and again, they condemned the idea that a theoretical American "sitting in a cafe" might be killed by an airstrike. Again and again, they questioned the wisdom of permitting a president to act as his own secret judge, jury and executioner in the case of a U.S. citizen -- though few of them criticized the use of drones against foreign terror suspects overseas.
And one Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, joined the filibuster to praise Paul's focus on drones and repeat the complaint of many senators that the White House is too secretive in how it pursues its targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The administration should take the Paul filibuster as a message to make good on its promises to become more transparent, Wyden said, and declassify some aspects of its drone strategy.
"Sen. Paul and I agree that this nomination also provides a very important opportunity for the United States Senate to consider the government's rules and policies on the targeted killings of Americans and that, of course, has been a central pillar of our nation's counterterror strategy," Wyden said.
The White House did not comment Wednesday on the filibuster.
One of Paul's fellow Republicans from across the Capitol, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, called the day's discussion in the Senate "irresponsible."
"It would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military or intelligence services to conduct lethal counterterrorism operations in the United States against U.S. citizens," Rogers said. "I would never allow such operations to occur on my watch. I urge the administration to clarify this point immediately so Congress can return to its pressing oversight responsibilities."
Last month, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," Rogers defended the Obama administration's use of drone strikes, saying he reviews each attack after it happens.
During his long discourse, Paul acknowledged that he does not actually fear that Obama would order a drone to kill an American terror suspect, but is worried that the White House won't explicitly rule it out.
"I really don't think he'll drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe in Houston like I'm talking about, but it really bothers me he won't say that he won't," Paul said. "And it bothered me that when he was a member of this body, he had a much higher standard on civil liberties than he seems to [have] now."
Paul also acknowledged he could not block Brennan from being confirmed as CIA director.
"Ultimately, I can't win," Paul said.
Juana Summers and Tim Mak contributed to this report.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 12:30 p.m. on March 6, 2013.
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