Where Rand Paul Ranks in Filibuster History

The Kentucky senator spoke for 12 hours and 52 minutes but still didn't crack the top five in filibuster history

By Emily Feldman
|  Thursday, Mar 7, 2013  |  Updated 4:20 PM EDT
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Senate Democrats pushed Wednesday for speedy confirmation of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director but ran into a snag after a Paul began a lengthy speech over the legality of potential drone strikes on U.S. soil.

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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul stood up shortly before noon Wednesday and announced his intention to filibuster President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA.

"I will speak until I can no longer speak," he said. And so he did.

While it was far cry from South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1957 filibuster that went on for more than 24 hours, Paul's dilatory tactic earned him a spot in Senate history.

In a move out of the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" playbook, the tea party Republican, for 12 hours and 52 minutes, criticized the Obama administration's lethal drone program, which has vastly expanded under the influence of Brennan, the president's counter-terrorism adviser.

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While Paul's style veered occasionally into wacky territory — like when he re-imagined a portion of "Alice in Wonderland" to make a point about the American justice system — he remained focused on his chief gripe: Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to rule out the hypothetical targeted killing of Americans on U.S. soil — something Holder said the government had no intention to carry out but would keep on the table for "extraordinary circumstances."

"It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States," Holder initially wrote in a letter to Paul.

On Thursday, however, Holder sent the senator a follow-up letter clarifying that the president does not have the authority to kill Americans that are not engaged in combat on U.S. soil, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who read excerpts from the letter to the press.

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If the U.S. were under attack or if there were an "imminent threat," however, the president had the authority to protect the country from that assault, Carney added.

Though Brennan was expected to and eventually did win confirmation, Paul's filibuster garnered plenty of publicity and achieved what was surely one of his goals — turning the spotlight on the controversial program that has become one of the U.S. military's key tools in the war against terror.

His political move divided Republicans but won him rare support from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and other liberals and praise from the American Civil Liberties Union.

It was the country's eighth-longest filibuster and one of the first in recent history to stick to the traditional procedure — blocking or delaying a vote by refusing to yield the floor to anyone else. Of late, lawmakers have been engaging in a softer style of filibustering, wherein they essentially vote to not vote (which was the case with the recent Republican move to delay a vote on Chuck Hagel's confirmation to lead the Pentagon).

But Paul did what no other U.S. lawmaker had done since Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2010: He spoke until he absolutely could no longer. "I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond's record, but I've discovered that there are some limits to filibustering," Paul said in a comical conclusion. "And I'm going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here."

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Here's a look at the seven lawmakers who somehow surpassed Paul's biological limits:

STROM THURMOND: 24 hours, 18 minutes
In 1957 the South Carolina senator tried to thwart a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1957 with the lengthiest filibuster in history. The senator reportedly took steam baths to dehydrate himself in preparation for his epic talkathon that Sen. William Knowland referred to as "cruel and unusual punishment."

ALFONSE D'AMATO: 23 hours, 30 minutes
In 1986, the New York senator protested a military spending bill that would cut off financing for planes built by a Long Island-based company. The New York Times wrote that "even the threat of missing the opening game of the World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox on Saturday would not deter the Republican of New York from continuing a filibuster."

WAYNE MORSE: 22 hours, 26 minutes
The Oregon senator filibustered the Tidelands Oil legislation in 1953, which ultimately handed U.S.-owned swaths of the Gulf of Mexico to the state of Texas. According to reports, his longest speaking break lasted just two minutes when he paused to allow a colleague to make a statement. While he was permitted to lean against the desk behind him, he was called to order when he tried to sit down.

ROBERT LA FOLLETTE: 18 hours, 23 minutes
In 1908 the Wisconsin senator launched a filibuster to block debate on the Aldrich-Vreeland currency bill, which established the National Monetary Commission and gave the Treasury the authority to lend to banks during financial crises.

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: 16 hours, 12 minutes
The Wisconsin Democrat in 1981 tried to halt a debt limit hike with what he called a "genleman's filibuster." He agreed in advance not to delay regular Senate business, which was scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. the following day, and he ended his long talk with an apology to "the chief presiding officers, the pages, the reporters and all the people who have just been so courteous and so helpful and so gentle in spite of the fact that I've been such a trial to them," the Washington Post reported.

HUEY LONG: 15 hours, 30 minutes
In 1935, the senator from Louisiana  delayed a vote on a bill that would require Senate confirmation for the National Recovery Administration's senior employees. The senator, in what he called "the greatest speech in history," according to the New York Times, read the entire U.S. Constitution aloud, told stories about his uncle and provided recipes for fried oysters and potlikker.

ROBERT BYRD: 14 hours, 13 minutes
West Virginia Sen. Bob Byrd was part of a group of Democrats who tried to roadblock passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and kept the bill pending in the Senate for 57 working days.

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