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July 28, 2014

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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has his faults. Who among us can forget about the time he ranted at a representative of the Energy Department about the inadequacy of his bathroom plumbing? (“You busybodies always want to do something to tell us how we can live our lives better. ... I’ve been waiting for 20 years to talk about how bad these toilets are.”)

But you have to give him credit for effort. On Wednesday, the capital was under a snowstorm warning, and you know how wimpy people in Washington get when there’s even a hint of snow. Everybody wanted to get out and get home. But Paul brought the Senate to a grinding halt by staging a filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to be head of the CIA.

“I’m here today to speak for as long as I can hold up,” he announced. And off he went.

Paul had no particular problem with the nomination, which he acknowledged was going to pass once he stopped talking. But the debate over Brennan had brought up the question of drone strikes. The junior senator from Kentucky wanted President Barack Obama to promise not to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. “At least we need to know what are the rules,” he said sometime during hour five.

Fair enough. The Obama administration had been unnecessarily dodgy on this point. The very fact that the president was ordering the death of U.S. citizens anywhere without oversight was worrying. Shouldn’t there be a special court to sign off on these things?

“I really don’t think he’ll drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe in Houston,” said Paul, who had earlier raised just that possibility. He quoted from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” analyzed several Supreme Court cases and expressed a negative opinion about Jane Fonda. Overall, he was remarkably cogent for a person who had been talking for hours.

He was also frequently hard to take, especially when he got the occasional helping hand from a Tea Party supporter. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, enthusiastically noted that Paul was staging a rebellion on the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo and compared the filibuster to the famous letter from its commander, William Travis, which ended with “Victory or death.” This was the very same letter George W. Bush once quoted to U.S. golfers battling for the Ryder Cup. Once in a while, it would be nice if a politician from Texas pointed out that it’s possible to stand up for principle without fatalities.

The whole drama was most important as a mirror to the way the Senate normally does business. Look at what happened Wednesday, people, and you can see a perfect example of why Democratic reformers wanted to change the rules and bring back the talking filibuster. Compare Paul’s behavior with that of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. Earlier in the day, McConnell had staged a filibuster under the usual system. He blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. circuit court by filing a piece of paper.

Halligan’s nomination has been moldering for two years now. Her fate is an excellent example of everything people hate about the way Washington works. She’s completely qualified, a former solicitor general for New York state. Nobody questions her character. But she cannot get an up-or-down vote. McConnell’s opposition was partly partisan (the Republicans want to keep majority control of the powerful D.C. circuit) and partly a bow to the National Rifle Association, which has recently gotten into the business of vetting major judicial nominations.

Would any Republican have spent a night fending off hunger, thirst and the need for bathroom breaks to stop Halligan’s nomination? We’ll never know. All McConnell had to do was just say no. Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, needed 60 votes to proceed. End of story. End of Halligan.

Paul has, in the past, been willing to work on that side of the road himself. His attempt to stop flood insurance legislation by demanding that it include a fetal rights bill lives on in memory.

But his performance Wednesday was different, an arresting combination of endurance, ego and principle. It was only the second filibuster speech to break the five-hour mark since 1992. The other one was in 2010, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., led an 8 1/2-hour rant against the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Sanders and Paul have very little in common, but they are both men with very clear and consistent political philosophies.

You don’t want to get carried away with the romance of this kind of thing. The talkathon in 1992 was staged by the deeply pragmatic Al D’Amato of New York to save an upstate typewriter factory. Remember Strom Thurmond and segregation. And “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was only a movie.

Still, after years of faux filibusters, Paul was an admirable change of pace. Exhausting yourself and irritating your colleagues for a cause is way better than stopping progress without taking the least bit of trouble.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Agree with Rand Paul or not, you gotta give him respect for this.