A big part of what lends filibusters their singular urgency is that, according to Senate rules, the politicians who volunteer to do them are not allowed to go to the bathroom as long as they’re speaking. A senator’s willingness to endure this torturous indignity out of principle sends a strong signal about the depth of his dedication, and it inspires a visceral sense of sympathy and even awe on the part of those watching at home.
When Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy announced his surprise filibuster in support of gun safety laws Wednesday, his commitment to resisting a bathroom break for hours on end was probably the first thing many observers thought of. It made a person wonder: How long would I go without peeing in order to force a vote on gun laws?
As Murphy’s speech stretched to 6 hours, then 10, then 14, even New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had to remark on the inspiring fortitude of the man’s bladder.
And then, this morning, the New York Times dropped a bombshell: According to reporter David Herszenhorn, Murphy actually could go to the bathroom during his filibuster!
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 Mr. Murphy used repeatedly on Wednesday and into Thursday morning.
This allowed fellow Democrats, like his Connecticut counterpart, Senator Richard Blumenthal, to take over for substantial chunks of time, offering lengthy commentaries that made forceful and emotional points about gun violence in America but, more important for Mr. Murphy, allowed him to take bathroom breaks.
Note the plural, please. Bathroom breaks! How often was this guy peeing, exactly?
I reached out to David Herszenhorn for clarification as to whether or not Murphy was merely allowed to relieve himself during his filibuster, or whether he actually did. Herszenhorn replied, “His staff says he did not but I can’t say for sure. I’m writing around it.” The Times story was subsequently updated to say, “Mr. 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.”
A different spokeswoman told me the same thing. However, that still leaves open the question of what Murphy was allowed to do. After all, if a senator declines the opportunity to go to the bathroom during a filibuster even though he can, does it still count as proof of his commitment to the cause, or does it become a senseless act of masochism?
To find out, I called the Senate parliamentarian’s office, which advises the Senate on the rules governing what senators can and cannot do. I spoke to a source who declined to speak for attribution but provided an authoritative answer nonetheless.
“We advised Senator Murphy that he needed to stay standing and stay in the chamber,” my source said. “Rule 19 of the Standing Rules of the Senate says that if the senator desires to be speak and be recognized, he shall rise and address the presiding officer. So he needs to stay standing.”
Ah, I thought to myself—but a man can pee standing up! Not so fast, wise guy.
“He needs to stay in the chamber,” the source clarified. “Otherwise how do we know if he’s standing?”
Yielding for questions, I was told, does not solve the problem: “You still have to hold the floor. … You can yield for questions, but you still have to hold the floor to entertain a question or answer the question, which means you have to stay standing and stay in the chamber.”
So there you have it. He couldn’t pee.