Inside the Rand Paul Filibuster

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
National Journal
Beth Reinhard and Shane Goldmacher
March 7, 2013, 2:30 p.m.

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.

Contributions by Stacy Kaper and Rebecca Kaplan
×