The Magazine

The Senate's All-Nighters

As filibusters go, it was something of a letdown.

Nov 24, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 11 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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STROM THURMOND would have been disappointed. What happened between 6:00 P.M. Wednesday and 9:30 A.M. Friday last week in the U.S. Senate chamber was no filibuster. No one read from the telephone book, sang show tunes, or relieved herself in a trashcan. In fact, the closest the Senate floor saw to traditional filibuster-style shenanigans occurred the previous Monday when Senator Harry Reid took the floor for nearly nine hours, at one point reading entire chapters from a book he wrote about his tiny hometown of Searchlight, Nevada.

There was plenty of time wasted and silliness, though, make no mistake about that. At 6:00-ish Wednesday, the Republican senators meandered into the chamber and stood around chatting. This was already a deviation from the plan. An email from the majority leader's office with the subject heading "Exact March in Time" found its way into Democratic hands, and was read on the floor at several points during the nearly 40-hour session. The email had reminded senatorial aides--in vain--that Fox's Brit Hume wanted to open his show with a shot of the senators entering the chamber, and thus "IT IS IMPORTANT TO DOUBLE EFFORTS TO GET YOUR BOSS TO S 230 ON TIME."

But before that embarrassing revelation hit the floor--in fact, before debate even began--the battle of the posters was underway. Democratic aides arrived on the floor and put up a large poster with "168-4" emblazoned in yellow on a bright blue background--the number of Bush judicial nominees confirmed versus the number filibustered. Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa responded by holding up a board with "I'll be home watching 'The Bachelor'" scrawled on it in Magic Marker. Guards moved to remove Harkin before noticing that he was a senator, and not a crazy protester. Both signs were ruled out of order and stowed away. Harkin snapped, "I'm not taking part in this circus," and--after making this substantial contribution to the circus atmosphere--waltzed out.

And so the Republican-initiated "Justice for Judges Marathon" debate began. The goal, said organizers, was to draw attention to the "unprecedented" Democratic strategy of filibustering President Bush's judicial nominees. In modern practice, the threat of a filibuster and an actual, round-the-clock filibuster are functionally equivalent. Since 60 votes are required for cloture (which ends debate, thus allowing a vote on the issue being debated), a minority can stall a substantive vote simply by refusing to formally end debate.

On the floor that night (and the next day, and the next night), senators mostly rehashed the same old arguments about the nature of filibusters and the character of Bush's nominees they had made to each other a dozen times before. The real action was in the nearby Mansfield Room, where an all-night schedule of press conferences took place.

In perhaps the creepiest moment of the whole event, Emile Meppen, 16, spoke for the Family Action Council International. She was surrounded by a crowd of other kids, many of them home-schooled, at 1:30 A.M. on Thursday. Meppen proclaimed herself "disappointed" in the political process. She tossed off a bon mot about constitutional guarantees of "democracy, equality, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion--even for judicial nominees," and smoothly integrated the major Republican talking point that the nominees were "being denied the opportunity of getting an up-or-down vote." While she spoke, a baby fussed and was hushed by its mother somewhere in the crowd. When she was finished, an adult presenter quipped, "I don't know who does your writing, but it's well done."

After packing the kids off home, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham grabbed some shut-eye in the Strom Thurmond Room, which had been filled with cots for sleepy senators. "I got a 40-minute nap and it was really weird," he said. "One of the cots was right under the bust of Senator Thurmond," who single-handedly held the floor in 1957 for more than 24 hours to oppose civil rights legislation. "I woke up to him staring down at me."

Graham said that he did not read the "bedtime story" thoughtfully placed on the cots by Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Titled "Republican Senators and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night" with "apologies to Judith Viorst," author of a children's book with a similar title, the illustrated tale was heavy on "mean elephant" clip art and had been read aloud earlier in the Mansfield Room by women's rights activists.

Some serious topics were addressed during the session. Most of the Democrats (when they weren't speaking about how it would be more useful to speak about something else) hammered on their confirmation record thus far. T-shirts handed out by Democrats made the same point as the big blue poster: "We confirmed 98 percent of Bush's judges, and all we got was this lousy T-shirt."