Gwen’s Take: Washington at Work (No, really.)
And they say there’s no more bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.
Wednesday turned that notion on its ear. A much feared and anticipated snowstorm failed to materialize, disappointing thousands of schoolchildren, but the gray skies and empty streets forced by school and government closings may have had a mind-clearing effect.
Perhaps because the prospect of bad weather cancelled flights that made it impossible to escape the capital, lawmakers seemed motivated to behave like – lawmakers. Or to behave at all.
At the Capitol, the House rushed to pass a $982 billion budget bill designed to avoid another budget standoff at month’s end. There was civil debate and a 267 to 151 vote that split largely — but not completely — along party lines.
When it was the Senate’s turn to forge ahead, they moved just as quickly to confirm John Brennan as the new CIA chief. He sailed out of committee, and it was largely presumed he would win that confirmation without a hitch.
But then came a hitch. Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul donned his brightest red to go to the Senate floor to talk. And talk. Nearly 13 hours later, he was still talking. A filibuster was underway against Brennan’s nomination.
This was not the sort of neatly pre-negotiated standoff that revolves mostly around the arcane rules governing how many votes are needed to cut off debate. This was an old-fashioned talk-till-you-drop standoff that revolved around an actual issue – in this case, what latitude the U.S. government should have to target its citizens on American soil.
“I’m here today to speak for as long as I can hold up, to try to rally support from people from both sides, to say, for goodness’ sakes, why don’t we use some advice and consent?” Paul said.
Paul told CNN the next day that he had no plan when he stepped onto the floor until a handful of other Senators – almost all first-term Republicans – caught wind of the filibuster and came to help him out. Florida’s Marco Rubio helpfully advised him to keep some water nearby. “Trust me,” said the man who flubbed the State of the Union response.
Brennan’s confirmation was almost beside the point. (He was confirmed by end of business Thursday by a wide margin.) Rubio quoted Jay Z. Ted Cruz of Texas read from the letter Alamo commander William Barret Travis wrote appealing for help just before he and his forces were slaughtered by the Mexican army (not the most useful analogy).
What was remarkable about this display is that normally, few Senators have much interest in undertaking genuine filibuster, which requires them to hold the floor without interruption for as long as they can. No meal breaks. No potty breaks.
So for the first three hours, Paul soldiered on alone, railing against drone strike policy and demanding that the White House guarantee that they would never be used against Americans at home. (Brennan helped develop the targeted killing program as an advisor to President Obama.)
But then came a glimmer of bipartisanship. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, seized the moment to unburden himself of his own complaints about the administration’s embrace of targeted killings. “We ought to have something we call a checks and balances caucus, you know, here in the Senate,” Wyden said.
Wyden, who said he had every intention of voting for Brennan, ended up being the only Democrat to support the Rand standoff. And in the end, Paul got what he said he wanted – a clarification of U.S. policy from the Attorney General.
“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question,” Holder wrote in a one-paragraph reply to Paul’s 13-hour standoff over whether the president could authorize a drone strike at home. (Holder’s answer was “no.”)
Paul, a favorite of Tea Party activists and the son of libertarian former Republican congressman Ron Paul, ended up annoying more Republicans than Democrats.
“I don’t remember any of you fellow Republicans coming down here and saying President [George W.] Bush was going to kill anyone with a drone,” said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who supports the Obama administration drone policy. “But we had a drone program back then … so what is it that’s got you so spun up now?”
Democrats who have complained about the policy of using drones to target individuals were almost entirely missing from this debate. When Paul, at one point, quoted from Alice in Wonderland as he killed time on the Senate floor, it could not have been more apt. Politically, the world was upside down.
Another sign of a temporary political apocalypse: as Paul and his few friends held forth on the Senate floor Wednesday night, President Obama was dining with a dozen conservative Republicans at a swanky hotel a few blocks up the street from the White House. Afterward, two hours at the dinner table apparently garnered what years of sparring could not – a thumbs up from John McCain.
The president presumably had breakfast with his family Thursday morning, but by lunchtime he was on the bipartisan charm offensive again, this time while eating sea bass and lentil vegetable soup at the White House with Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.
So take note. For 24 hours in Washington this week, things worked the way they were supposed to. Votes were taken. Budgets were approved. Nominees were confirmed. Previously warring parties broke bread in a civil fashion. And there was true, extended debate about checks and balances and what it takes to protect the homeland.
Everyone didn’t have to agree. But they did talk, and act.
The founding fathers would have been proud. I know I was.