How to know a filibuster when you see one

Filibuster. Senate Democrats have only rarely muttered the ‘F’ word
since 2004, when it played a role in toppling their leader, Tom Daschle
of South Dakota. Republicans’ reaction to filibusters then was to call
Daschle the “O” word: obstructionist.

Lesson learned. Many Democrats, now led by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, resolved to save filibusters for fights they can win.

Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination isn’t one of them, by anyone’s count.

that didn’t stop Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., from launching a
long-distance filibuster effort from Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday.
In so doing, he gave opponents of Alito another tool for making their

“Some have done it to draw attention, some have done it for publicity’s sake,” said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie.

procedure known as a filibuster existed long before the word entered
the lexicon in the mid-1800s, Ritchie said. Documentation of the first
Congress, in 1789, makes references to senators “trying to talk a bill
to death.” By 1840, the term was used by popular newspapers to mean
“freebooter or pirate, or the act of seizing something by force,”
Ritchie said.

“It’s been a pejorative term used by people who aren’t doing it,” he added.

filibusters do is erect a hurdle. Supporters of a bill or nominee under
current Senate rules must first get 60 votes on their side to clear
that hurdle so they can then adopt an amendment, pass a bill or confirm
a nominee with a simple majority of 51 votes in the 100-member Senate.

sometimes difficult to distinguish when the threat of a filibuster
becomes a filibuster. For many, it’s a matter of intent. “I will be
able to perceive one because I know one when I see it,” Sen. Robert
Byrd, D-W.Va., the recognized master of Senate procedures, said in 1987
when he was majority leader.

Byrd spoke for 14 hours and 13
minutes against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 as part of an 85-day
filibuster, the longest in history, according to Ritchie.

late Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat from South Carolina, holds
the individual record, filibustering civil rights legislation for 24
hours and 18 minutes in 1957.

Before Daschle’s defeat, Democrats
waged several successful filibusters against some of President Bush’s
appeals court nominees. Now it’s Kerry’s turn.

“I know it’s an
uphill battle,” Kerry said on the Senate floor. “I hear their
arguments. You know, reserve your gunpowder for the future. Well, what
is the future if it changes so dramatically at this moment in time?”

© 2006 The Associated Press