At 1:18 p.m. Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took the Senate floor to decry the potential extension of the legal authority underpinning the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of private telephone records — a controversial practice brought to light by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” Paul started. “That time is now, and I will not let the Patriot Act — the most unpatriotic of acts go unchallenged.”
Now seven hours later, Paul is still at his desk on the Senate floor, still talking.
But is it a filibuster?
Some Senate watchers have sniffed that Paul’s speech is not in fact a filibuster. That’s because the Senate is not actually amid debate on extending the surveillance authority, it’s debating trade legislation, and a petition to limit that debate is pending. That means, regardless of how long Paul speaks, he will have to yield the floor no later than 1 p.m. Thursday, when a vote on the “cloture” petition must take place under Senate rules.
But Paul himself is calling his speech a filibuster, and with good reason: If he keeps talking long enough, he can upend Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s carefully laid plans for the week, prevent amendments to the trade bill, delay consideration of the surveillance legislation, and otherwise prevent his Senate colleagues from enjoying their holiday weekends.
And if Paul can talk until 1 p.m. Thursday, he will have talked for 23 hours and 42 minutes — second-longest in recorded Senate history, exceeded only by Strom Thurmond’s 1957 record of 24:18.
Here is how Paul’s speech stands to affect Senate business should it continue past midnight: Paul is already keeping the managers of the trade legislation from processing amendments to that bill, which could affect whether the legislation gains the 60 votes tomorrow necessary to close debate and move toward final passage. If he keeps talking past midnight, he will delay McConnell from filing a cloture motion on legislation to address the impending Patriot Act lapse, pushing those votes into Saturday or beyond. And while the Senate was already on a trajectory toward some rare weekend work, given Democrats’ pledges to draw out debate on the trade bill, Paul’s maneuverings could guarantee it.
In the words of my Post colleague Paul Kane, “if this isn’t a filibuster, there’s no such thing as a filibuster.”