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In nearly empty Senate, Ted Cruz talks and talks and talks

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), denounces "Obamacare" as he speaks on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this still image take
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), denounces "Obamacare" as he speaks on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this still image take

By Fred Barbash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was precisely eight o'clock Tuesday night and the Senate chamber was nearly empty when Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz started reading "Green Eggs and Ham," aloud.

Sure, it was a filibuster, sort of. And the Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate had been talking for five hours, with many more promised as part of an effort to block funding for President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

But it was his kids' bedtime, Cruz explained. They were watching him on TV and needed their bedtime story.

Hopefully they went to sleep before Cruz segued from "Sam I Am" to Obamacare. "Green eggs and ham," Cruz explained, "has some applicability to the Obamacare bill."

Just how it applied to Obamacare was never made very clear.

But clarity fades in a filibuster, and the talker has to keep on talking or reading.

Strom Thurmond, the late Senator from South Carolina, had read the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and President George Washington's Farewell address during his fabled 1957 filibuster to block civil rights legislation. That one lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes, still the record.

Alfonse D'Amato, then Senator from New York, resorted to the phone book during his filibuster, an attempt to delay a 1986 military spending bill.

Filibusters are experiencing a revival. Rand Paul of Kentucky staged one earlier this year. Wendy Davis filibustered in the Texas State Senate for 11 hours to block an abortion bill.

Technically, the Cruz talkathon was not a filibuster. While the legislation at issue was a Republican measure to keep the government open and Obamacare closed, the Senate was actually adjourned and the members had already decided not to let Cruz or anyone else block a vote.

His talking would have no impact on the outcome of the debate and would not go down in history as a filibuster.

It did have some history-making possibilities, however.

Three potential 2016 Republican presidential contenders assisted in the talkathon, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Paul of Kentucky and Cruz.

"Senators don't always ask for advice," said Paul. "I thought I'd come down and make sure you have comfortable shoes on."

Paul and Rubio played crucial roles, asking Cruz lengthy questions, which under Senate rules allowed him to take short breaks without "yielding the floor" that would end the filibuster.

Thanks to Paul and Rubio and a few other colleagues, Cruz was briefly free to move about the Senate, with his hands in his pockets, sometimes with his arms folded at his chest.

Cruz may also be unpopular among his colleagues in the Senate, a distinction he acknowledged repeatedly Tuesday night, with references to the "withering criticisms" he had received from members of his own party, and to "mean" things said about him by "Senate staffers running to newspapers.

"A little bit of grief for breaking party discipline," Cruz said, was a "small price" to pay.

(The story corrects fourth paragraph to reflect that Cruz read entire Seuss rhyme rather than part.)

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan and David Lawder; Editing by Ken Wills)

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