The filibuster - a debate that has never ended

Republicans draw closer to changing the Senate rules on approving court nominees.

Named after a swift boat used by marauding West Indian pirates, the "filibuster" has long been the sharpest weapon in the Senate's procedural arsenal - and as such a point of recurring controversy.

It has been curbed twice in the last century, and, after two failed compromise attempts last week, the fight over its future threatens to eclipse the agenda for the current Congress - and fundamentally change minority rights in the Senate.

This week, interest groups on both sides of the filibuster fight expanded national ad campaigns targeted to the home states of key senators. Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic "war rooms" fire missives back and forth showing the inconsistencies in voting records on the other side.

The filibuster, or the use of delay tactics in debate, has often aroused strong passions. Today's fight over its use to stop judicial nominees is today's version of "nuclear war" in Washington, but it's hardly the first brawl over expansive congressional oratory.

A filibuster in 1841 over the firing of the Senate's official printers nearly ended in a duel. During the civil war, filibustering Sen. Willard Saulsbury of Delaware pulled a gun on the sergeant at arms and threatened to shoot him. He didn't. Opposing a currency bill in 1908, Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette sustained an all-night filibuster with glasses of milk and egg from the Senate restaurant, until he sipped the one laced with ptomaine poison. He later recovered.

Use of the filibuster has also had its lyric moments. Louisiana Sen. Huey Long recited recipes for oysters and scenes from the life of Frederick the Great during 15-1/2 hours of nearly continuous talking in a 1935 filibuster over the staffing of the National Recovery Administration. A sample: "First let me tell Senators what potlikker is. Potlikker is the residue that remains from the commingling, heating, and evaporation - anyway, it is in the bottom of the pot...."

Today filibusters are more often threatened than waged. But in a nine-hour filibuster over judicial nominations on Nov. 19, 2003, Democratic leader Harry Reid discoursed on the virtues of wooden matches and read chapters from his own book about his hometown, "Searchlight: the Camp that Didn't Fail."

Behind the drama are serious stakes in the capacity of a minority to delay or block a vote. Where some see a protection of minority rights and of the Senate's heritage as a "deliberative" body, the majority party sometimes sees a hijacking of democracy. "Obstruction is a weapon, and like all weapons it is dangerous," wrote Franklin Burdette in "Filibustering in the Senate," a 1940 book. "Yet in the lives of nations as of men," he added, "there are times when weapons are a safeguard."

Nor is there much partisan consistency in how the filibuster has come to be viewed. For decades, northern liberals decried the filibuster as the key obstacle to civil rights legislation. South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun used it to defend slavery in 1841. Sen. Strom Thurmond logged in the longest filibuster in US history - 24 hours and 18 minutes - as he argued against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a move he says he regrets. Senator Byrd and Democrats are now the leading voices for protection of filibuster rights. (The GOP's so-called "nuclear option" would restrict those rights in relation to the confirmation of nominees, but not other Senate business.)

In the Democratic Radio Address last weekend, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo called the filibuster "a vital part of the 200-year-old system of checks and balances in the Senate" that allows the "fullest possible debate" of judicial nominees.

Until 1917, there was no way to end a filibuster. But President Wilson and Senate Democrats, enraged at how "a little group of willful men" used the filibuster to block a bill to arm merchant ships in World War I, pushed a rule change to end filibusters with a two-thirds majority vote.

But between 1917 and 1962, the new rule was rarely successful in actually ending debate. So in 1975, moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats lowered the threshold for ending debate to a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes. That second change in the filibuster rules began to have a profound impact on how the Senate operated. "It changed the character of the Senate. Before 1975, 60 votes meant nothing. Now it means everything," says Robert Dove, a former Senate parliamentarian, now a professor at George Washington University.

Republicans note that when Democrats called for the elimination of all filibusters in 1995, 19 Democratic senators voted for it, including nine still in the Senate. No Republicans supported it. "Filibusters did not used to be the darling of liberals, just the opposite," says Mr. Dove.

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