Eleven days before he spent nearly 13 hours filibustering on the Senate floor, Sen. Rand Paul floated his idea to block the president’s pick for CIA director to one of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s top political strategists over a Saturday night dinner of lasagna and red wine at his home in Bowling Green, Ky.
The adviser, Jesse Benton, occupies a unique place in Kentucky politics as bridge between McConnell, the old-school minority leader, and Paul, the insurgent tea-party firebrand. Benton ran Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign and is married to Paul’s niece. And since September, he has been advising McConnell as he seeks reelection in 2014.
After the dinner, Benton reached out to McConnell’s office, detailing Paul’s plans and his hopes for support. An important line of communications had been opened.
It helped ensure that well before Paul took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to declare, “I will speak until I can no longer speak,” he had lined up the tacit approval of the GOP leadership. For a politician who earned his stripes as a political outsider, Paul’s filibuster performance and planning demonstrated his aptitude at the inside D.C. game.
After half a day of speaking on the floor, Paul’s filibuster had captured Washington’s imagination and spurred a renewed conversation about American drone policy. The GOP establishment was suddenly coalescing around the libertarian-leaning junior senator, a man whose foreign policy views are often labeled as out-of-step with the party. By midnight, Republican senators were lining up like planes circling Reagan Washington National Airport for a chance to sound their support on the Senate floor.
“I admire his fortitude,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, proclaimed at one point.
The outpouring was organic and unexpected. Paul has said he would have worn more comfortable shoes if he knew he’d be standing and speaking for so long.
But the day wasn’t entirely unplanned. Paul, often accused of being a lone wolf on Capitol Hill, had laid some of the groundwork to win over the GOP establishment. McConnell and Co. knew the filibuster was coming, even if they did not know when precisely or what exactly it would look like.
Paul had personally informed some Republican senators that he planned to mount the talking filibuster the day before over lunch, said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a member of the GOP leadership. “The day before, he said that he was going to start talking until he couldn’t talk anymore,” Barrasso said. McConnell, meanwhile, put out the word to the conference that he was supportive of Paul’s efforts.
Still, Paul spoke solo on the Senate floor for more than three hours Wednesday before any of his colleagues joined in support. The first was Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, another tea-party darling from the class of 2010. The National Republican Senatorial Committee soon showed camaraderie by posting supportive messages on Twitter and an e-mail pitch urging donors to “#StandwithRand.” Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, also went down to the floor.
As afternoon turned to evening, a group of GOP senators crossed town for dinner with President Obama at the Jefferson Hotel. Paul stuck to the floor, demanding answers to the legal limits of America’s domestic drone program.
Momentum built on Twitter and in the conservative grassroots. His speechifying was labeled a “filiblizzard” on C-SPAN, after the snowstorm that had threatened the Capitol all day but never materialized. By late Wednesday, the #StandwithRand hashtag was trending across the globe on Twitter.
“I was having dinner with my wife. I turned on the TV and there was Rand, and it looked like he was all alone,” Barrasso said, “and I knew I wanted to get over there and help him. And so I got to the floor at about 9 and stayed until it ended.”
He was not the only one. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential Paul rival for the presidency in 2016, returned to the floor late in the evening, offering up relief for Paul’s straining voice and words of wisdom from Jay-Z and Wiz Khalifa.
So moved by the debate were freshman Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina that they made their maiden floor remarks — often a carefully choreographed and celebrated occasion — right there on the spot in the form of a mid-filibuster question.
The outpouring of support climaxed at 11:43 p.m., minutes short of the filibuster’s 12-hour mark. That is when Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, typed out on Twitter: “Attention all Republican US Senators -->Please go to the floor and help out @SenRandPaul #StandwithRand.”
The establishment had been won over.
“It started as one man’s lonely stand for principle, and as the day went on it grew, first one senator, then another, then another, then another,” said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “And it captivated millions of Americans who are understandably frustrated by entrenched politicians in Washington who do not seem to listen to their concerns.”
Paul was still basking in it all still on Thursday. “It seemed to be kind of spontaneous,” he said. “A lot of people just started coming to the floor…. That doesn’t happen very often, so we were pretty excited about that.”
The most important senator was still yet to arrive.
Paul and McConnell have developed something of a politically symbiotic relationship. McConnell, wary of a challenge from the right in 2014, has carefully cultivated an alliance with Paul. Paul, hoping to advance his agenda in the Senate, has done the same with McConnell. It was a partnership that peaked this week.
Texts and e-mail had continued over the course of the evening between Benton, McConnell’s chief of staff, Josh Holmes, and Paul’s chief of staff, Doug Stafford. At about 10:30 p.m., McConnell was at home toggling between a basketball game and C-SPAN. Soon, McConnell let his staff know that he was on the way to the Capitol.
Around midnight, McConnell heaped praise on the “tenacity, conviction” and “extraordinary effort” of his fellow Kentuckian. Just as important, he threw his weight, procedurally, behind the effort, announcing he would support a 60-vote threshold for the nomination until Paul’s questions were answered. At 12:39 a.m., Paul and his swollen bladder called it a night after nearly 13 straight hours on the floor.
“I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here,” Paul declared.
By Thursday, the White House relented on Paul’s request. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that, yes, the Obama administration definitively rejected the use of drone strikes against non-combatant American citizens on American soil. The new CIA director, John Brennan, was confirmed soon thereafter.
And a new Republican Senate star, Rand Paul, was born.
Stacy Kaper and Rebecca Kaplan contributed
This article appeared in the Friday, March 8, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.