Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster against drone strikes sets Senate alight

The junior senator from Kentucky is now getting some much-needed rest.

Libertarian Republican senator Rand Paul, the son of wannabe Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul, made history last night with one of the longest filibuster speeches in American history. Paul spoke for thirteen hours in an attempt to delay the senate confirmation of John Brennan to run the CIA, making a case against the President's equivocation on whether or not it is legitimate to carry out drone strikes on American citizens on American soil.

The filibuster has become a standard part of Senate republican blocking tactics in recent years, in part because its meaning has changed over time. It used to be the case that to filibuster a debate meant to speak at length in order to prevent it coming to a vote, with the intention being that the Senate would run out of time and have to move on to other business.

It was in that climate that Strom Thurmond made the longest ever filibuster speech during the debate over the 1957 civil rights act, speaking for 25 hours straight against the bill. (The fact that Thurmond's marathon effort was in support of racism didn't play against him, and he went on to become the oldest and longest-serving senator in US history, switching allegiance to the Republican party in 1964 and only retiring in 2003.)

Thurmond's attempt failed because the Senate authorities were prepared to delay all future discussions until the civil rights act passed. But in recent years, merely the threat of a filibuster has been enough to cause a bill to be abandoned. Since a vote of "cloture"—a motion to end the debate and move to a vote—requires a supermajority of sixty of the hundred senators, this has the effect of meaning that the minority party, provided it has more than forty senators, can control the Senate.

Earlier in the same session, Paul had joined in with this more common style of filibustering, refusing a vote of cloture for a judicial nominee who had once sued a gun company. But taking a stand agains Brennan, he did it the old-fashioned way, speaking passionately for thirteen hours on the problems with extrajudicial killing of Americans.

Frequently in filibusters, in the US and elsewhere, the delaying tactics are transparent. Legislators have even been known to read the contents of the phonebook in an attempt to find something to say, and one memorable case in Canada involved an MP reading the entirety of his own book to the parliament. Since the Canadian Hansard is bilingual, he was accused of receiving a taxpayer-funded translation on purpose.

This time, the debate was more on-message, although Politico does report some off-topic speeches from other senators joining in the filibuster:

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.

As Ezra Klein points out, the success of Paul's filibuster—it was the first-term senator's biggest moment in the legislature to date, and succeeded in making his objections stand out from the normal Republican obstructionism—shows that there are times when the filibuster is a positive contribution to the machinations of the Senate. Klein writes:

This is the highest purpose of the filibuster: Allowing a passionate minority to slow down the Senate and make their case to both their colleagues and the American people. If more filibusters went like this, there'd be no reason to demand reform. And if there is reform, it needs to hold open the possibility for filibusters like this.

Eventually, nature took its course and Paul retired from the chamber, ending his speech with a note of regret that Thrumond's achievement still stands:

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage