On Thursday afternoon Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the Senate and began speaking for what could be more than eight hours. The Kentucky Republican earlier vowed he would do “everything I can to stop” the two-year debt ceiling and budget agreement passed in the House 266-167 on Tuesday.
“It is hard for me not to use profanity in describing it,” he told reporters in Boulder, Colo. “We should be using the leverage of the debt ceiling to actually enforce spending restraint.” The deal adds $56 billion in additional spending to both fiscal years 2016 and 2017, some of it unfunded.
Unfortunately for Paul, filibusters ain’t what they used to be. Pretty much no matter what Paul does, he can’t derail this bill. But he can talk about it for a while.
Paul took the floor a little after 3pm Thursday. According to the Senate rules, he can keep talking until midnight, as long as he doesn’t sit or take a bathroom break, at which time the debate will expire. That’s when things will get interesting.
Paul’s fellow Kentuckian, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will then move to vote on cloture, a Senate procedure that limits the debate of a bill to 30 hours—essentially blocking a true filibuster. The previous debate expiring at midnight was on the motion to invoke cloture—yes, the Senate does spend a lot of time talking about the process as well as the underlying legislation. Cloture will pass and then, theoretically, a 30-hour debate on the bill itself would start. But, McConnell has reinterpreted the 30-hour debate rule.
“Sen. Paul has been and continues to filibuster the unlimited debt limit increase,” a spokesman for Paul said Thursday. “Tonight at 1:00 am, the Majority Leader will attempt to end Sen. Paul’s filibuster with a cloture vote. If 41 Senators stand with Sen. Paul, the filibuster will continue.”
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Under previous leaders, the 30-hour clock left the floor open for any Senator to speak for however long her or she wanted up to 30 hours—well, 15 hours as the time is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. But McConnell has reinterpreted the rule, with the support of the Senate Parliamentarian, so that every Senator gets up to one hour to speak until the 30 hours has been used up. Meaning, unless his peers give him time, Paul will only have one hour to speak beyond his pre-midnight gabfest.
Conceivably, 29 senators could donate their time to Paul, but that is unlikely given that if they do give him the time they’ll all be stuck in the Senate overnight until 7 a.m. Saturday morning—the earliest possible time the Senate would then be able to vote on the measure. McConnell is determined to see this through on Friday and he’s betting that previously booked flights, engagements with family and in home districts on Friday night will keep most senators from giving Paul too much time.
McConnell imposed these rules to limit a small number of extreme senators from hijacking the process too much, even though he has endorsed Paul for president. The move has been effective. Paul’s 2016 rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, isn’t even bothering to try to filibuster. “John Boehner’s golden parachute will certainly cement his legacy, but it is a slap in the face to conservatives,” was all Cruz said in a statement.
Paul has filibustered previously to much conservative acclaim on drone strikes and warrantless wiretapping. His campaign desperately needs the bump a successful filibuster might have given him: he has sunk in polls from a high of 10% in May to 3.4%, according a RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Paul also only raised $2.5 million in the third quarter, compared with $6.9 million in the second quarter. He has been fending off rumors that he might soon drop out. So he’ll talk, but it won’t change anything in Congress.