CURL: 13 hours that changed the Republican Party

Sometimes, when you least expect it, Washington can be surprising.

No, it wasn’t a surprise last week when weather forecasters warned that a mighty blizzard would bury the nation’s capital under a foot of snow, and then rained all day. That’s been going on since the 1970s.

And it wasn’t surprising that an egotistical president would suddenly invite his adversaries to dinner to chew the fat. (Funny how the chief executive will suddenly change his tune when polls show Americans hate his latest policy.)

What surprised all of Washington – even all of America – was a first-term senator taking to the Senate floor for a filibuster: A real, honest to God, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster, not the milquetoast threat whined by the bloviating cowards who now populate the hallowed chamber.

Yes, a man – a real man – finally walked into the well of the Senate and said, “Nope. No more. Not one inch more, until I’ve had my say. Make yourself comfortable, gentlemen, this is going to take a while.”

But this man, an ophthalmologist mind you, didn’t just read from the phone book (as Sen. Alfonse D’Amato once did). No, this man took the millions watching little old C-SPAN through one of the single greatest and most profound enunciations of the U.S. Constitution – and in a single stroke both slayed the staid Republican old guard in the Senate and vaulted onto the national stage.

His name is Sen. Rand Paul, and he spoke for nearly 13 hours. All because he wanted the answer to a single question: Can America kill an American on American soil with a drone, simply drop a bomb on a citizen they deem a threat, with no judge or jury or protection under the Constitution?

The answer is simple, and just one word: No. The Founders had seen to that (and the document they produced is flush with guarantees that such a thing could never happen, not in the new country they were establishing).

But President No. 44, and especially his oily attorney general, have other ideas. Barack Obama and Eric H. Holder Jr. think the question isn’t cut and dried, isn’t black and white, that there are some shady gray areas, that there really isn’t just one little answer.

Mr. Paul had asked that question to Mr. Holder, who said this in response: “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws … for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” He was even more evasive during a Senate hearing, offering long, meandering philosophical answers to the easy query – and never mentioning the Constitution.

Well, that did not sit well with the eye doctor from Kentucky.

“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” the senator said shortly before noon Wednesday. “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

He wouldn’t yield the floor until nearly midnight. And he would be joined by some new, young bucks of the Republican Party – Sen. Ted Cruz, who read from a letter written by William Barrett Travis, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army who died at the Alamo (“I shall never surrender or retreat”), and Sen. Marco Rubio, who quoted rapper Jay Z (“It’s funny when seven days can change, it was all good just a week ago”).

Meanwhile, the old bulls, like Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, were dining with the president at the pricey Jefferson Hotel. Mr. McCain, who gave a thumbs-up sign as he left the soiree, said Mr. Paul should “calm down” and called the filibuster a “political stunt.” For his part, the increasingly irrelevant Mr. Graham slammed the soliloquy as “ridiculous.”

But by mid-day Thursday, the White House sang a whole new tune. No doubt at the order of the president, Mr. Holder wrote a letter to Mr. Paul in which he said: “The answer to the question is no.”

“Under duress and under public humiliation,” Mr. Paul said with a smile, “the White House will respond and do the right thing.”

Yet there was more than just a simple answer to an elementary question. The stand taken by the spry young pups of the Senate, while the fat old dogs dined with the president, proves there are some new pack leaders in town. No longer will a president chew up the Constitution — not as long as we’re here, the alpha pups said. And we don’t need to ask nicely over and over and over — we’ll just stand here, all of us, until the president answers.

So if old dogs really can learn new tricks, they better learn ’em, and quick, ’cuz these new dogs are growling and showing their teeth. And one thing is clear: Their bite is worse than their bark.

• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report.

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