Sen. Christopher Murphy seized control of the Senate floor for more than 15 hours to force the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, into allowing votes on amendments to an annual appropriations bill — in this case to tighten the nation’s gun laws.
WASHINGTON — This is no longer Mr. Smith’s Washington, or even Strom Thurmond’s.
Most filibusters in the U.S. Senate these days do not involve any talking at all. The upper chamber of Congress is now so partisan that the majority leader, anticipating the inevitable, will move to break a filibuster before it even begins.
And then there are “filibusters” like the 15-hour marathon led by Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., on gun violence, which involve a whole lot of talking but do not try to block a vote — as the actor Jimmy Stewart did while portraying Mr. Smith in the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — or like Thurmond, who set a record for the longest filibuster, 24 hours, 18 minutes, in a bid to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
In the case of Murphy, who seized control of the Senate floor for more than 15 hours beginning at 11:21 a.m. Wednesday, the goal was to force the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., into doing something that was once a matter of routine: allowing votes on amendments to an annual appropriations bill — in this case on Democrats’ amendments to the annual Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill seeking to tighten the nation’s gun laws in the aftermath of the massacre in Orlando, Fla.
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Murphy, whose personal outrage at gun violence was heightened by the murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, claimed victory shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday when he announced an agreement between McConnell and the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, to hold votes on two gun-control amendments.
“It is our understanding that the Republican leader and the Democratic leader have spoken and that we have been given a commitment on a path forward to get votes on the floor of the Senate,” Murphy said as he prepared to finally wrap up.
“Now we still have to get from here to there,” he added. “But we did not have that commitment when we started today. And we have that understanding at the end of the day.”
But while Murphy made a long and often eloquent case for tightening the nation’s gun laws, Democrats almost certainly would have gotten their votes, anyway — without the more than 15 hours of speeches by him and by at least 40 other senators who helped sustain his effort by asking him to yield time for questions.
Indeed, versions of the two amendments favored by the Democrats — one aimed at preventing individuals who have appeared on the government’s terrorism watch list from buying guns and the second aimed at expanding background checks — received votes in the Senate in December after the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California. Each failed.
Under Senate rules, once a senator is recognized on the floor and gains control of debate, she or he can hold it as long as humanly possible — a part of the Senate’s long tradition of unlimited debate. Refusing to relinquish the floor for any other Senate action, a filibuster, typically requires standing there and speaking. But the rules also allow the senator to yield the floor, without giving up control, for questions or comments from colleagues, a strategy that Murphy used repeatedly Wednesday and into Thursday morning.
This allowed fellow Democrats, like his Connecticut counterpart, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, to take over for substantial chunks of time, offering lengthy commentaries that made forceful and emotional points about gun violence in America. Murphy could have taken a quick break, but he never left the floor and did not go to the bathroom throughout the 15 hours, according to a spokeswoman for the senator, Laura Maloney.
To prevent things from getting entirely deadlocked, the Senate has adapted its rules to allow 60 senators to vote to break a filibuster and end debate on any given matter, the so-called cloture motion. Because either party has rarely held 60 seats in the Senate, cloture essentially upholds the Senate’s requirement of at least some bipartisan agreement.
It also allows a majority leader to effectively declare that a filibuster is under way, anticipated really, and that the majority does not have the votes to move forward, even before any talking has occurred.
Aides to McConnell said that his plan all along was to allow votes on the proposals, largely because Republicans want votes on their own amendments to the appropriations measure and not just on the gun issue. The aides said that Murphy and the Democrats were killing time to score political points.
Democrats would not necessarily disagree. Many of them have been infuriated over the refusal of Congress to tighten gun laws despite a continuing epidemic of mass shootings and smaller scale gun violence.
“When we don’t act there is a quiet signal that is sent to people whose minds are becoming unhinged,” Murphy said at one point. “Almost every one of us has had a conversation with a family member who lost a son or daughter to gun violence.”
Murphy added: “Just speaking personally, I need to be able to tell them something. They need to be able to hear something that helps in their healing. The fact of the matter is every single day there are 80 sets of families who begin the process of grief surrounding the taking of a life through a firearm. And their process of healing for many of them is encumbered by the fact that their leaders are not doing anything to stop it.”
Throughout Murphy’s long effort, McConnell made no effort to stop him. McConnell did not file for cloture, nor were Republicans trying to conduct any other floor business. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who will manage the annual Commerce, Justice appropriations measure, had no real plan to begin floor work Wednesday.
Asked by reporters if the Democrats were delaying anything, he replied nonchalantly, “Tomorrow is another day.”
For all the theater, Murphy’s main achievement beyond delivering the Democrats’ message on C-SPAN — and creating a sensation on social media — was to force at least one Republican to remain in the chair as presiding officer, as well as to keep all of the essential Senate clerks and other floor staff members at work for a long night.
Once McConnell and Reid assured Murphy of a tentative deal, all of those people got to go home.