You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Slumber Party

Scenes from the Senate's all-night Iraq debate

If Hillary Clinton gives a speech calling for withdrawal from Iraq at 4:15 in the morning, does anybody hear it? Sitting in the nearly empty Senate chamber at the exceedingly painful halfway mark of the Democrats' forced all-night debate on an amendment to start redeploying troops from Iraq, the answer is pretty clearly no. As to whether it made a sound--a metaphorical sound, that is; an impact on any wavering Republicans or a consolation to the base--that's a big no, too. The purpose of forcing a filibustering opposition to actually stay on the floor has always been to milk that tactic's Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington-style high camp and theater. But thanks to the war's peculiarly nasty politics, Democrats couldn't play it up, and the thing was a flop.

4:15 is deep into the witching hour on the Hill, a dead time when a hot stillness settles over the Capitol and nobody who's awake can be up to any good. (Reflecting the creepy mood this neighborhood takes on in the middle of the night, as I walk towards the Senate a mysterious, well-dressed man in a golden pickup truck screeches to the curb, jumps out, gets into the passenger seat of a black Town Car, and screeches away.) With the exception of Hillary--God only knows why she chose this hellish slot to speak, but I'm open to conspiracy theories--it's a particularly beleaguered collection of souls holding down the fort inside the chamber. There are wilted freshmen who drew the short straws on speaking slots (Wyoming's John Barasso, fresh from being selected to replace the deceased Craig Thomas, noted glumly that "At home it's 3:00 a.m., and I doubt we have many viewers," before implausibly reassuring himself that "people in Wyoming...follow me day and night"); Republican moderates like Norm Coleman, who probably hope their justifications for voting against the redeployment amendment will go unregistered by a slumbering press corps; and an amazingly energetic John McCain, who ranges the floor for much of the night lecturing from a series of festively colored Mesopotamia maps and, occasionally, picking spats with the likes of Jim Webb. While I can't help but find McCain's passion and endurance impressive--most Senators made no shame of their desperation to snooze between quorum calls--there's also something pathetic about it: Doesn't he have anything left worth being rested for?

Sad as he is, it's sadder that McCain is the only person here truly working it. It's basically impossible, not to mention ungentlemanly, to actually physically wear down filibustering opposition members by making them stay on the floor indefinitely. But it can be a fabulous carnival for the press and the base. During the debate's slow moments, I looked back for comparison at the 30-hour debate over judicial nominees the Republicans staged in 2003: It had been planned for several months, and the operation--which had its own catchy name, the "Justice for Judges Marathon"--involved a big p.r. war room, special commemorative t-shirts, and gaggles of pro-life children shipped in to look cute on TV in support of the cause. Republican senators did their part to keep emotions high; Rick Santorum even injured his hand pounding the podium.

My colleague Michael Crowley called it a "truly revolting performance." Indeed. Still, a performance--maybe even a revolting one--is really the only reason to undertake this kind of marathon. But unlike during the judges showdown, Democrats needed to attract moderate Republicans as well as humiliate them. Even the most non-inflammatory signs were liable to ruffle moderate GOP feathers, as when surge opponent Susan Collins complained about a blue "Let Us Vote" poster several Democratic senators propped up beside them as they spoke. Besides a brief flurry of drama with the cots, the long night could only be described as extremely low-key: no war room, no senator-produced t-shirts. I didn't even see the "Let Us Vote" sign after Collins moaned about it.

The whole affair's polite atmosphere, in turn, rankled activists hoping for something bolder. At a 9:00 p.m. MoveOn rally attended by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and many of the amendment's supporters, the crowd periodically heckled the lawmakers. "That's shit!" shouted one woman, after Pelosi explained that the point of the night was to expose how Republicans were obstructing their efforts to put legislation on the president's table. "It's not enough!" others called out. "Please be quiet!" Reid snapped to the flock at one point. By 4:00 a.m., the only activists remaining to watch and support the filibuster were a handful of vaguely dissatisfied Code Pink folks, "camped" outside the Senate entrance underneath pink umbrellas. "It's pretty dull," one told me. "There are some Senators in there, blathering about a topic I know way more about," added another. Thanks, but no thanks.

At times, it seemed like the night served most effectively as a Government-in-Action lesson to Hill interns. In line to see the night's beginning, they revealed that they worked for members of the House, where sexy things rarely happen. "We're in Washington, so we thought we should see a filibuster," one explained. "We've had a few beers."

At 11:00 a.m., the cloture vote failed, 52-47. That was always predicted, so it wasn't felt as a huge disappointment. But for this observer at least, the event as a whole illustrated a way in which--on Iraq--Democrats are trying to please too many and are thereby pleasing nobody. As I write this in the Senate Press Gallery, a peeved Arlen Specter is harping on the closed-circuit TV behind me. "We could have debated the Levin-Reed amendment in a few hours," he gripes. "We could have debated the Salazar amendment in a few hours. We could have debated the Warner-Lugar amendment in a few hours. And we could have done it during the daytime." I have to say I see his point.