Charlie Harper: Path to a functional Washington?

March 9, 2013 

The filibuster is one of the great moments which remain of political theater. It's been the subject of actual classic theater. Jimmy Stewart is responsible for many of us even knowing what this somewhat arcane Senate parliamentary procedure even is, courtesy of his Mr. Smith who went to Washington.

The U.S. Senate is, by design, our branch of government that is responsible for occasionally putting the brakes on the whims and wants of the majority and the masses. It remains the body that must rely on some form of civil relations between its members. It is also the body that, largely because of that camaraderie, affords great individual power to any member who chooses to hold up all the activities of the entire Senate so long as he chooses to exercise a moment of personal privilege.

Senator Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, chose to exercise one of those moments on Wednesday - a day which most of D.C.. had already shut down because of a snowstorm that failed to arrive. Instead of snow, Paul brought fire. And as of the time of this writing about midnight Wednesday night, he was still bringing it with the help of some of his more conservative Republican peers and even a couple of Democrats.

Officially, the filibuster was to stop the vote on the name of John Brennan to head the CIA. More specifically, however, Paul has been using the time to demand from the White House answers to questions regarding the legal standards of when a drone can be used to attack and kill an American citizen on American soil.

He was joined by several Republican Senators who asked questions in order to give him time to rest his voice during the 12 hours-plus marathon. The first to assist were among the newer and more conservative senators within the GOP caucus, but Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon also joined in support. When Senate Leader Harry Reid moved to cut off the debate and either vote or resume activity in the morning, Georgia's Saxby Chambliss objected along with Paul, giving the Paul the right to continue so long as he was able to remain standing.

Not lost on those closely watching the event was that Paul was managing to bring together the far left and the far right, with sane, rational talk. Most observing from both political extremes weren't calling them "crazy" or "fringe." Instead, it was a 12-hour lesson on civics, individual rights versus government power, and above all, the Constitution.

Twelve-plus hours is an exercise in the anti-soundbite. Those who watched even some of it were able to witness the kind of debate that is romanticized in movies and television but rarely happens in reality. And many were able to learn, see complex sides of an issue, and get to an understanding that while all the answers on the topic won't be easy, there is a rational way to discuss and reason.

During the evening as he continued to speak, 11 of Paul's Republican colleagues met for dinner with the president at the Jefferson Hotel -- neutral ground from Capitol Hill and the White House. President Obama has been criticized during his presidency for being aloof and distant from Congress, lacking substantive relationships with leaders of his own party as well as Republicans. The dinner appears to be a first step in fixing this perception, focusing on those senators most likely willing to deal on issues of the budget as well as immigration reform.

Many supporting the filibuster on social media were openly derisive of the dinner meeting hosted by the president. Yet despite the contrast of a meeting of "the establishment" with an anti-establishment filibuster, it should not be lost that there was movement toward discussing actual problems and solutions on Wednesday in Washington.

On a day when snow was supposed to keep Washington from working, there were signs from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that those who are supposed to govern us may be beginning to understand what it will take to work more than any in recent memory. And it started by a small form of government shutdown. That by one man with one point -- one that he made very well.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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