The great Senate 30-hour anti-filibuster filibuster started at 6 o'clock Wednesday evening, and the much-touted dignity of the Senate reigned supreme until, oh, about 6:10, when Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held up a sign that revealed his plans for the night:
"I'll Be Home Watching The Bachelor."
Perhaps Harkin's choice made sense on a purely artistic level -- "The Bachelor" has the virtue of brevity -- but it meant that Harkin missed one of the strangest nights in Senate history, plus some nifty souvenirs: filibuster buttons, a filibuster children's book, two rival filibuster T-shirts and a filibuster bingo game.
To laymen, the anti-filibuster filibuster might have seemed a bit silly. But to the cognoscenti, who understand the mysterious ways of the United States Senate, it seemed downright bizarre. It was, after all, a filibuster designed to protest the possibility of a filibuster. Or, as its strongest proponent, Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), dubbed it: a "reverse filibuster."
The filibuster is, of course, a time-honored Senate tradition -- an attempt by a minority to stop Senate action by delaying it, frequently by yakking on and on. But this "reverse filibuster" was different. It was, in effect, a publicity stunt designed by the majority (the Republicans) to pressure the minority (the Democrats) to give up its threat to filibuster against four of President Bush's nominees for judgeships.
"We are launching an historic justice-for-justice marathon," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), touting the Republican plan for a 30-hour debate on the judge issue, from Wednesday night through midnight on Thursday.
"This is a travesty," said Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Reid was so angry at what he considered a Republican waste of time that he responded by launching a time-wasting filibuster of his own last Monday, talking for more than eight hours -- a speech that included goulash recipes, advice on how to keep rabbits out of a garden, and a dramatic reading of six chapters of "Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail," his 1998 book about his Nevada home town.
Undaunted by Reid's filibuster to protest the anti-filibuster filibuster, the Republicans marched to the Senate floor en masse promptly at 6 on Wednesday night to start their talkathon. They were greeted by a gaggle of scornful Democrats, including Harkin, who was armed with his "Bachelor" sign.
And the long, weird show began.
6:30 -- Faced with filling 30 hours of debate -- 15 hours allotted for each party -- Frist and Reid argue over who will get to go next and for how long. Reid wants the next half-hour for the Democrats, but Frist wants Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to go first. After several minutes of semi-heated debate, Hatch comes up with a solution: "I'll take four minutes now and then I'll take 11 minutes after you get a half-hour."
6:35 -- "We should be voting on the nominations, not debating," says Hatch, whose laryngitis-plagued voice is so raspy that he sounds like Tom Waits. The Democrats, he adds, have treated Bush's four blocked nominees "like dirt."
6:45 -- Promising that "one sign will equal 30 hours of gibberish," Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) displays a garish purple-and-yellow sign that says "168 to 4." "The bottom line is very simple," he says. "We have supported 168 judges that President Bush has sent us. We have blocked four. All this talk of angels on the head of a pin can't equal that."
7:05 -- Downstairs, in the Mansfield Room, the Democrats are holding a pep rally for supporters, some of whom wear T-shirts that read: "We Confirmed 98% of Bush's Judges And All We Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." Pumping his pasty fist into the air, Ted Kennedy bellows, "We are not going to be a rubber stamp for right-wing ideological judges."
Democrats hand out a "Fili-Bingo" board game and a mock children's book called "Republican Senators and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night." There's also a box billed as a "Care Package for Courageous Senators." Its contents include coffee, candy bars, a copy of the Constitution and Pepto-Bismol tablets that are said to counteract the nausea induced by Republican rhetoric.
7:45 -- On the Senate floor, Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) denounces this marathon as a "Let's all get together and hold our breath and turn blue for 30 hours" session.
9:08 -- Hatch argues that the Democrats' opposition to Bush nominees "all comes down to abortion." His voice is getting raspier. Now he sounds like Captain Beefheart. He says the Democrats are "treating the president like dirt."
9:40 -- In Frist's office, just off the Senate floor, two cots are set up, one covered with blue sheets, the other with a green sleeping bag. Nobody is sleeping in either one yet. On a table are bowls of fruit, candy, chips and white cheddar popcorn. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson gaze down from paintings on the walls.
10:05 -- Santorum has responded to Schumer's purple and yellow "168 to 4" sign with a purple and yellow sign of his own. It reads: "2,372-0." The 2,372 represents the number of judicial nominees sent to the Senate in U.S. history, he says. The zero represents the number of filibusters of judicial nominees before George W. Bush took office.
"Look at the precedent!" he hollers.
"NO FILIBUSTERS!" he hollers louder.
All pumped up, Santorum predicts that the dastardly Dems won't stop with these four nominees.
"The 168 to 4 will be 168 to 6! And 168 to 7! And 168 to 8!" he yells. "There's no end to this complete debasement!"
10:20 -- "A militant minority is thwarting the will of the majority," says Hatch. His voice is getting even raspier. Now he sounds like Howlin' Wolf.
10:50 -- "This is just a repetition of arguments we've heard over and over and over," says Schumer. As if to prove his point, he refers again to his "168 to 4" sign. "This chart is worth 30 hours of palaver, of gibberish."
11:45 -- "Here we are," says Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "It's quarter of 12 at night and I feel all perky." The Republicans just aren't perky enough, she suggests. "You get 168 and you don't get four," she says, "and you're whining and you're crying."
She points to a sign reading, "2.6 million manufacturing jobs lost," and she asks the Senate to give unanimous consent to a bill that would raise the minimum wage. A Republican immediately objects, killing the motion.
"That just proves the point," Boxer says. "They just want to complain about four people who already have jobs. They don't want to talk about people who are unemployed."
12:05 -- Schumer has responded to Santorum's "2,372-0" sign with a blowup of a New York Times front page from the 1960s that refers to the bipartisan "filibuster" of the judicial nomination of Abe Fortas. That proves, Schumer says, that the zero in Santorum's sign is baloney. He says the Republicans killed dozens of Bill Clinton's judicial nominations in committee with no hearing and no floor vote.
"The senator from New York," counters Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), "could make soup out of slop."
Sessions proceeds to read quotes by Sens. Boxer, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- all of them denouncing Republicans for filibustering against Clinton nominees. "And now Senator Leahy is leading this filibuster and so is Senator Daschle."
12:45 -- Up in the press gallery, somebody has put a six-pack of beer on ice, creating a quandary for those reporters who are still awake: If they drink a beer, they could doze off and miss some of this scintillating debate. If they don't drink a beer, they have to watch the debate stone-cold sober.
1:30 -- The Mansfield Room is packed again, this time with Republicans, many of them high school and college students wearing blue T-shirts that read: "Justice for Judges Marathon."
"You can tell your grandkids about this," says Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has just come in off the Senate floor, where he orated for half an hour. "You're here tonight at 1:30 in the morning, and you're witnessing history."
Some of the students aren't quite clear exactly what they're witnessing. "It's been amazing to be inside and see everybody," says Kelly Flynn, 19, a Catholic University student. "But I don't know very much about what they're talking about."
3:00 -- Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the Democrat with the least seniority, has drawn the graveyard shift of this marathon -- he's assigned to take the floor from 2 to 4 in the morning. Now he's run out of rhetoric and announces that he's going to read from "Master of the Senate," Volume 3 of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. "It's 1,040 pages," he says. "I assure you, I'm not going to read all thousand pages."
He starts at the beginning, with Caro's long, lyrical description of the Senate chamber -- the very room he's standing in as he reads.
"Daniel Webster's hands," he reads, "rested on one of those desks."
3:45 -- In the Mansfield Room, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says: "We signed up to keep watch while most of America sleeps." Perkins is one of dozens of folks from conservative religious groups who are packing the Mansfield Room. He denounces "an out-of-control judiciary that's chipping away at our religious liberties."
When Santorum, a Catholic, comes out to address the group, somebody asks him how some senators who profess to be religious can be on the other side on this issue. "There are those who are orthodox and those who are not," he says. "There are those within these faiths who believe in a transcendent God and those who don't."
5:45 -- "The sun's rising on the East Coast," says George Allen (R-Va.). "Country singer Charley Pride urged us to 'kiss an angel good morning.' I don't see any angels around here. My angel's at home, getting the kids up."
6:51 -- Schumer is back on the floor with his "168 to 4" sign. "We can do all the arguments you want," he says. "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"
7:20 -- Outside, the sun is fighting through heavy gray clouds, illuminating the magnificent dome of the Capitol.
Police in heavy coats are standing guard. One of them has been watching the debates on and off through the long night.
"I could see if it was something important like the budget or Iraq," the cop says, "but who cares about judicial appointments?"
This marathon has been going on for more than 13 hours now. There's still nearly 17 hours to go, and some Republicans are talking about continuing past midnight.
"They should get a life," the cop says.