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Long-Winded Senate Tradition

The GOP plans to force a filibuster today, but the all-night talkathon lost its relevance years ago.

November 12, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Thanks to the ever-popular "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," most Americans have one enduring image of the U.S. Senate: a place where even rookie lawmakers can filibuster a bill to death by talking for hours, days -- or as long as their legs can hold up.

However, that 1939 movie image is as relevant to today's Senate as the LP is to modern music recording.

The filibuster -- the storied Senate tradition of blocking a bill by talking around the clock -- is hardly ever conducted the old-fashioned way.

Beginning this evening, Senate Republicans plan to invoke the spirit of that tradition by forcing Democrats to talk through the night to sustain their filibuster of several controversial judicial nominations.

But no one expects the staged 30-hour talkathon to break the yearlong deadlock over judges, and Republicans admit the event is more a public relations effort to spotlight an obscure issue than a realistic drive to break the opposition.

The fanfare that has gone into holding the Senate in an all-night session, the outcome of which is preordained, underscores just how marginal the old-style filibuster has become.

Long gone are the days when the filibuster was deployed mostly for issues of great national significance such as civil rights and war, with senators holding the floor by reciting recipes, reading from the Bible and devising ways to avoid trips to the bathroom.

Such spectacles have become a rarity in part because of the growth of federal social programs since President Johnson's Great Society of the mid-1960s. With more and more legislation demanding their attention, congressional leaders have been less willing to let the Senate get tied up on a single issue.

That is one reason Senate leaders devised a technique in the mid-1970s for keeping filibusters from bringing the work of the chamber to a halt: When someone threatens a filibuster, leaders simply move on to other business. The result has been fewer full-blown filibusters but more filibuster threats: Senators freely warn they will filibuster a bill, safe in the assumption that leaders will not force them to pull an all-nighter.

Some analysts say the demise of the genuine filibuster also reflects a broader decline in the quality of Senate debate in an era of sound-bite politics.

"The sound bite is the enemy of sustained argument," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "I don't think the kind of oratorical cut and thrust that used to be so characteristic of the Senate occurs anymore."

The filibuster -- a term rooted in a Dutch word for "freebooter," or pirate -- is distinctive to the Senate. The Senate's rules, unlike the House's, allow most debates to proceed without time limits. A single senator can block a vote by talking and refusing to give up the floor. It is a power senators proudly see as part of their constitutional role as the more deliberative half of Congress, where minority voices can be heard.

"That really is what the U.S. Senate is all about," said Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. "A single voice can stop the proceedings and force everyone else to pay attention."

Through most of the 19th century, no mechanism was in place for cutting off a filibuster. That changed in 1917, after a filibuster blocked a bill to allow merchant ships to be armed against German submarine attacks during World War I. Infuriated, President Wilson called the Senate back into session to pass the bill and adopt new procedures for cutting off filibusters.

The rule called for closing debate -- or invoking "cloture" -- by a vote of two-thirds of the senators present. That threshold was lowered to 60 votes in 1975 and remains today. That is why, in practice, it takes the support of 60 senators -- not just a simple majority of 51-- to pass legislation in the Senate.

The great filibusters of the 20th century are the stuff of Senate legend. Many filibusters have been conducted by teams of like-minded senators. But on rare occasions, a senator has gone solo.

Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana unleashed his longest and most dramatic torrent of words in 1935 in support of a provision to require Senate confirmation of certain administration appointees. Speaking for 15 hours and 30 minutes, according to the Senate Historical Office, Long quoted the Bible, read the entire U.S. Constitution, offered a recipe for pot liquor and gave a lengthy description of how to cook oysters.

A solo filibuster is a challenge because the senator is not able to leave even to use the bathroom without risking losing control of the floor. While Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) conducted a filibuster in 1950, he added to his staying power by rigging up a urine bag in his pants. When the tube came undone, the presiding officer let Kefauver leave to fix the problem, Ritchie said.

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