WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans took the floor on Wednesday, launching an historic filibuster in an attempt to extract an answer from the White House to a simple question: Does the administration believe it has the legal authority to kill an American citizen on American soil with a drone strike?
It's a question that seems fairly nonpartisan on its face, but a second one occurred to those watching the C-SPAN broadcast late into the morning: Where are all the Democrats?
Senate Republicans, from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to filibuster-leader Rand Paul (Ky.), spoke for more than 12 hours. But only one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, spoke in support of Paul during that time. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted support, but otherwise progressives who might have been assumed to have been supportive were absent, leaving members of the GOP as the defenders of civil liberties. The White House was equally silent.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) even joked that Paul's filibuster was "background noise."
As the filibuster crept toward its 13th hour, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) joined to ask Paul whether the U.S. government had the authority to take out the fourth plane on 9/11 before it crashed into the Capitol.
"I don't think this is such a clear and easy situation," Durbin said.
Paul called it a "red herring."
"We all agree that you can repel an imminent attack," Paul said. "None of us disagree with that. We are talking about a targeted drone program" against citizens who are "not actively engaged in combat. ... I don't think that standard can be used in the United States."
Durbin said he respected Paul's response. "I stand with the senator," Durbin said. "I think it is a legitimate question."
While Paul's filibuster was ongoing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) -- who had joined the filibuster in its third hour -- called out Senate Democrats for their absence.
"I agree that one of the saddest things we've seen during the eight hours that Rand Paul has been filibustering is the crickets chirping from the other side of the aisle, with the exception of Ron Wyden and I appreciate his coming down," Cruz said Wednesday on conservative pundit Mark Levin's radio show. "But with that exception, where were the Democrats? How can they not be every bit as outraged as all of the rest of us are?"
Wyden has been the most outspoken Democratic critic of President Barack Obama's drone program and the secrecy that surrounds it. He was the first Democrat to join the filibuster, taking the Senate floor just before 4 p.m. on Wednesday. He expressed support for Brennan's nomination, but said that he welcomed the opportunity to discuss key questions surrounding Obama's drone policy.
"I want it understood that I have great respect for this effort to really ask these kinds of questions,” Wyden said. "And Senator Paul has certainly been digging into these issues in great detail."
Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has advocated for more transparency from Obama's Justice Department on targeted drone strikes. Last month, he pressed the Justice Department to answer more questions about the program.
"The executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny because that’s not how American democracy works," Wyden said during Wednesday's filibuster. “That’s not what our system is about."
This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Ted Cruz.
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