KATU 2 News - Portland, Oregon

Filibusters explained. Maybe.

May 21, 2005

- by KATU Web Staff
The filibuster fight: What's it all about? And where did that word come from?

First off, the term "filibuster" first popped up in the 1850's. It is derived from a Dutch word that means "pirate". That's appropriate, since using a filibuster essentially means stealing away the opportunity to take a vote.

The mechanics of it go like this: if a senator wants to block a vote, they can begin a lengthy speech (the filibuster) from the floor of the Senate with no time limit. Other senators can vote to end the filibuster, but that takes 60 out of 100 votes, and with the Senate split down party lines, that usually does not happen.

Also, the person giving the speech/filibuster can take questions from other senators, prolonging the speech.

Lastly, politicians are not limited in time or subject matter (for the most part) when filibustering. They can talk about anything for as long as they are able.

This has resulted in some marathon filibusters, and some strange topics. In 1950, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond set a record with a filibuster that ran just over 24 hours in length. He was opposed to a civil rights bill, but it eventually passed.

Famously verbose Louisiana senator Huey Long held the floor for over 15 hours, updating his fellow senators on some good recipes for southern fried oysters and other culinary delights. He was fighting President Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to end Senate confirmation of some federal employees.

When is a filibuster successful?

Basically, a filibuster kills a vote by talking it to death. In order to stop a filibuster without having enough votes (60, remember?), the issue up for vote must be tabled until a later date- if ever. If that happens, the filibuster has been successful.

What is the so-called "nuclear option"?

Senate Republicans are now trying to change the Senate rules to ban filibusters when voting on judicial nominees. They say it unnecessarily prevents a vote and is a political stalling tactic. Democrats say it is a valuable debating tool, necessary for thorough debate.

Republicans would need a simple majority vote to change the rules, and since Vice President Dick Cheney would cast the tie-breaker vote, Republicans think they have a shot at making the rule change happen.

But Democrats are saying the filibuster is a long-held tradition and a powerful tool for extending debate, and it should not be removed. They also claim the rule change is mainly being pursued so President Bush can place conservative judges in key positions, possibly for a future battle over abortion rights.

Democrats call ending the filibuster rule "the nuclear option" because if the rule change passes, they say they will use a variety of political and parliamentary maneuvers to "melt down" Capitol Hill legislation processes.

Democrats think they have a few votes from Republican senate members so that if it does come to a vote to end the filibuster, they would have enough votes to retain it.