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Senate Pulls an All-Nighter

It's been nearly 4 years since the last round-the-clock Senate debate, and plenty of things are the same. Just like last time, when the issue was the minority party's filibusters of judicial nominations, the cots are here for senatorial napping. The speeches are high minded and, despite an early shrug of the shoulders, both sides are now fully engaged and plotting a full-court press on communications to win the spin war.

Press conferences, pep rallies and vigils are in the works. And both sides are playing tactical games -- Democratic leadership aides even purchased overnight kits of toothpaste, tooth brushes and deodorant that are being delivered to GOP leadership staff, accompanied by a note: "A few supplies for your sleepless night -- Help us bring an end to this war."

But thematically, this time around, what was down is now up, and up is now down. Each side is, procedurally speaking, talking out the opposite side of its mouth, with Democrats decrying Republicans who are holding the majority Democrats to a 60-vote hurdle on each of their amendments to end the war in Iraq by next spring. The old majority is the new minority, and vice versa; not surprisingly, their positions on procedural motions have taken a 180-degree turn.

Kicking off the debate shortly after 3 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thundered: "Republicans are using a filibuster to block us from even voting on an amendment that could bring the war to a responsible end. They are protecting the President rather than protecting our troops. They are denying us an up-or-down -- yes or no -- vote on the most important issue our country faces."

But back in November 2003 -- the last time the chamber did an around-the-clock debate -- Democrats fought vigorously for the right to filibuster. Reid, then the minority whip, was so incensed that Republicans had scheduled an overnight debate that he seized the Senate floor days ahead of time and pleaded for minority rights. "Don't think we're unimportant," he railed at one point. "Don't think we can just be pushed around. We have a say in here. We can do things like I'm doing here today."

Reid went on for 9 hours on Nov. 10, 2003, the first grand ol' filibuster by a single senator of the 21st century. At one point Reid read from a book he authored about his hard-scrabble, hard-rock-mining home town, "Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail." Several days later, when a 53-hour debate on filibusters on nominations commenced, liberal groups held rallies in support of the filibuster and handed out pins labeled "Give 'Em Hell, Harry."

When the judicial filibuster issue came to a head in the spring of 2005, Reid, then minority leader, repeatedly called his effort to save the filibuster the "most important" issue he would ever handle as a senator. Ultimately a bipartisan group of moderates crafted a compromise, averting a showdown on a proposed rules change to end filibusters on judicial nominations.

Despite their past effort to jettison the 60-vote hurdle, Republicans today loooove their right to filibuster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who as majority whip from 2003-2006 tried to round up the votes to change the rules to end judicial filibusters, promised today to match Democrats in a debate on the underlying bill all night and all morning and all day tomorrow.

"If they want to debate all night, we'll be here," McConnell said. "Plenty of [GOP] volunteers will be here to discuss this issue as long as they would like."

To be sure, each side contends that it has not abandoned its past philosophical view on filibusters. Democrats contend that the defense authorization bill has been granted special status, that because it is funding the Pentagon in war time that it hasn't been held to a 60-vote threshold. In addition, Democrats say that the war is such an important issue that it should no longer be upheld to a supermajority standard.

Meanwhile, Republicans say that their past support for eradicating filibusters was solely for judicial and executive branch nominations, not legislative measures such as the Pentagon bill. They say that they always supported filibuster rights for legislative measures.

Regardless, when in the minority, one's views on such things tend to sound very similar. Commencing the Democratic portion of the last all-night marathon, Nov. 12, 2003, then-Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said, "We begin tonight what I view to be a colossal waste of time."

In a statement today, McConnell summed up today's debate: "This issue is far too serious to waste the next day on publicity stunts."

By Paul Kane  |  July 17, 2007; 7:21 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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