A Quick Look at the Filibuster Debacle

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is thinking about invoking the “nuclear option” – a change in Senate rules that would prohibit Democrats from staging filibusters in opposition to President Bush’s judicial appointments.

Here is a quick look at the issue:

Q: What is a filibuster?

A: A parliamentary maneuver, used in the Senate, to block a measure from coming to a vote. The tactic is almost as old as the republic itself.

Q: How does a filibuster work?

A: Once a senator grabs the privilege of the Senate floor during debate on a particular piece of legislation, he or she is not obligated to give it up. A senator can talk on and on and on, thus blocking votes and other business as long as he or she continues addressing the chamber.

Q: Can a filibuster be stopped?

A: Yes. Unlimited debate was a Senate staple until 1917. At that time, under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, the chamber adopted Rule 22, which permits the Senate to end debate. That procedure, technically known as cloture, initially required a two-thirds vote. In 1975, a new threshold was adopted: requiring a three-fifths vote of the 100-member Senate. Sixty votes are now required to break a filibuster.

Q: What happens if the Senate fails to invoke cloture?

A: Then debate continues. Generally, the Senate majority leader _ in this case Frist _ will simply give up trying to have the chamber vote on the measure in question and move on to another issue.

Q: What’s the origin of the term “filibuster”?

A: It goes back to the middle of the 19th century. Adventurers in Central America and the West Indies who were stirring up trouble came to be known in English as filibusterers, from the Dutch “vribuiter.” In the 1850s, the term was popularly applied to quarrelsome lawmakers who were viewed as pirating the Senate floor.

Q: What is the purpose?

A: Generally speaking, the idea is to provide some protection to the minority. If all votes centered on simple majority rule, even the most ill-considered pieces of legislation could be adopted over minority objection. The rule gives proponents an additional hurdle to overcome.

Q: Have there been any attempts to get rid of the filibuster?

A: The House had the same rule during the early years of Congress but found it necessary to abandon it as the number of lawmakers grew and everyone found a reason to halt debate.

In 1841, Sen. Henry Clay, a Kentucky Whig, threatened to change Senate rules when minority Democrats sought to block a banking bill he favored. Clay abandoned the effort when Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri Democrat, complained that it would bring an end to unlimited debate.

Then, in 1872, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, the Senate chairman, declared, “Under the practice of the Senate the presiding officer could not restrain a Senator in remarks which the Senator considers pertinent to the issue.”

Q: How long do filibusters last?

A: The record for the longest individual speech belongs to Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., who held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an effort to halt a civil-rights bill. Thurmond later became a Republican. One of the most famous filibuster users was Sen. Huey Long, D-La., who in the 1930s occasionally would read from Shakespeare or offer his favorite recipes to halt legislation he claimed favored the rich over the poor.

However, the rules have been changed so those holding the floor no longer have to speak incessantly to maintain control.

Q: Why is it under attack now?

A: The minority Senate Democrats have sought to thwart 10 judicial appointments made by President Bush, saying the nominees are out of the mainstream, by conducting filibusters. That has angered Frist who has threatened to implement what is referred to as “the nuclear option” _ a change in Senate rules that would permit just a simple majority vote to end debate on judicial nominees. Frist needs just a simple majority in the 100-member Senate to change the rules.

Q: Will he succeed?

A: It looks close. Some Republicans are hesitant to invoke the nuclear option, fearful it will work against their interests if Democrats regain control of the Senate. It could go either way.

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com.)