The Filibuster Fight: Same Story, Roles Reversed
The Senate filibuster has come under attack - again. The names of its critics might be different, but one thing's the same: the party in charge is the one threatening to change the rules. They want to limit the highly-effective procedural tactic to block the Senate's business.
First, a brief history:
The word filibuster comes from a Dutch word that means pirate. It was used to indicate that the Senate floor is being seized and legislation is being held up by force.
Senate historian Donald Ritchie believes that although the first filibuster took place in the very first Congress but the word filibuster was not used until the 1850s. With the formalization of the filibuster, a senator would hold up business by consistently talking on the Senate floor, and there was no way to stop the rogue Senate - until 1917. At that time, the Senate changed the rules to allow a cloture vote, which enabled 67 senators to defeat the stalling tactic.
The filibuster was famously used to block two different versions of the Civil Rights Act. Former Sen. Strom Thurmond's successful 24-hour talk-a-thon helped to kill the 1957 civil rights legislation. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., tried the same tactic in 1964. His 14-hour filibuster was part of a 57-day marathon that, ultimately, was not effective in killing the legislation.
The next - and last - major change to the filibuster came in 1975, when the threshold to route a filibuster was lowered from 67 lawmakers to 60.
In recent years, the number of filibusters has risen dramatically. According to the Democrats, Republicans launched more than 385 filibusters (that forced cloture votes) since 2007. That's compared to only 49 cloture votes from 1919 to 1970. After 1970, the number started to rise - perhaps prompting the 1975 rule change - until the number really jumped in the mid-2000s.
Also common to the modern filibuster is that senators no longer stall on the Senate floor with never-ending speeches. Instead, they put a hold on a bill, which is often done anonymously, and walk away continuing on with their other daily business of hearings, fundraising and meeting with lobbyists and constituents.
Now, the Democrats, who have held the majority since 2007, are threatening to weaken the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is vowing to change the Senate rules during the opening days of the next Congress in January - the easiest time to change Senate rules. His rule change would mean he could overcome a filibuster when trying to bring a bill to the floor with the simple majority, or 51 senators, instead of 60 (the Democrats will have 55 seats in the Senate in the next Congress). Another Reid proposal would mandate that filibustering senators would have to be physically present to maintain a Senate blockade.
Reid has been pretty aggressive about his desire to change the rules complaining that the Senate "is not working as it should" because of the number of filibusters. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is equally as aggressive at protecting the status quo.