WASHINGTON — The filibuster has been used to delay many things over the years: civil rights, spending bills, presidential nominees and, most recently, Obamacare. But this may be the first time in history that a group of senators filibustered themselves.
About 30 Democratic senators — calling themselves the Senate Climate Action Task Force — kept the Senate open overnight Monday into Tuesday morning. "We're not going to rest until Congress wakes up and acts on the most pressing issue of our time," declared Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the organizer of the sleepless senators.
Seeking action on global warming is a worthy endeavor, and the night owls deserve praise for the enthusiasm. But burning the midnight oil in this manner is peculiar. Usually, when a lawmaker talks all night, he's trying to stop the majority from passing something. But these guys are trying to persuade the majority — themselves — to pass something.
Joining the late-night guerrilla action was Harry Reid, D-Nev., who as the Senate majority leader is usually a target of filibusters, not a sponsor. If he and his colleagues really want action, they don't have to lose sleep. They could bring a climate-change bill to the floor.
The problem is that Reid doesn't have the votes in his caucus to pass such a measure. A year ago, the last time the Senate considered a fee on carbon emissions, 13 Democrats joined with all 45 Republicans in defeating it. Democrats facing difficult re-election fights this year were conspicuously absent from Monday night's lineup.
"I think if we went immediately to a vote we probably wouldn't be successful," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, an organizer of the all-nighter.
Reid, who kicked off the 13-hour talkathon at 6:30 p.m., didn't mention the problems among his fellow Democrats. He praised his colleagues for "standing up to the deniers" and "the oil-baron Koch brothers and their allies in Congress."
Apparently, those allies were not intimidated by the Democrats' late-night show. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., crashed the party, needling his colleagues for more than half an hour. "All night long? That's going to be fun," said Inhofe, who calls global warming a "hoax" and frequently sights cold snaps as confirmation. "They'll have an audience of themselves and I hope that they enjoy it."
The participants did seem to enjoy it. They had a Twitter hashtag, #Up4Climate, and gave energetic speeches long and short on the science of climate change. The Democrats were taking a page from the playbook of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who held an all-nighter on the Senate floor in the fall opposing Obamacare, and Kentucky's Rand Paul, who staged a talkathon last spring in opposition to President Obama's nominee for CIA director.
The Democrats' action — the 35th all-night session in Senate history — isn't technically a filibuster (Cruz's wasn't either, for that matter) because they aren't delaying anything.
But the magic of the filibuster is that it's a test of human stamina: The speaker can't leave the floor, so the speech lasts as long as the bladder does. By using a tag-team approach, the Democrats weren't enduring anything but a lost hour or two of sleep.
Still, they figured their antics in the wee hours would display their dedication for all Americans to see, or at least insomniacs who watch C-SPAN2. It also might impress Democratic donors. As The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe reported, Democratic senators discussed plans for the filibuster last month at a fundraiser held by liberal billionaire Thomas Steyer.
"We hope that by [senators] staying up all night to discuss climate change, tomorrow will signal a new dawn of climate-change action in Congress," said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
That's a lofty sentiment, but there's no real prospect of the Senate, much less the Republican-controlled House, moving to limit carbon emissions in the next few years. For now, environmentalists are putting their hope in Obama's Climate Action Plan, which includes efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other polluters. At the same time, efforts to boost efficiency and alternative fuels have begun to reduce Americans' carbon output.
That's about all that can be done for now, organizers of the all-nighter acknowledged. In fact, the sleepless senators weren't advocating any particular action on climate change. "Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal," Whitehouse said. "It's about showing the environmental community ... that the Senate is starting to stir."
Starting to stir. But it won't awaken with so many Democrats hitting the snooze button.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.