About that Filibuster


A close observer from up on the Hill shares some history and insights about filibusters and sundry delaying tactics …

Reams could be and have been written on the origins, history, evolution and current relevance of the filibuster, but on DC’s point, the answer is pretty simple – any debatable motion can be filibustered. The motion to proceed to a bill or nomination has always been debatable. That’s why it will ultimately take two cloture votes to cut off debate and get a vote on the final bill. Several other motions to move the bill to conference are debatable too. Most of those motions are usually adopted by unanimous consent, but they may not be in this case. Passing a bill when there is passionate opposition to it is hard. That’s just the way it is. It may seem silly to endlessly debate a motion that only starts the debate, but that’s Senate procedure, and it has little to do with the filibuster rule itself.

Of course, the cloture rule has changed over time. In the days of the civil rights movement, it took a 2/3 vote (of those voting) to cut off debate – the 60 vote rule came into being in the 1975. But it wasn’t a rule change that ended the requirement of staying on the motion or bill being filibustered while the cloture petition ripens – just a tacit agreement that doing so is in the interest of both sides – the filibusterers would rather not have to stay on the floor and prevent the proponents of the matter from adopting it by consent if they leave the floor to go to the bathroom. The majority would rather not waste a day and a half of precious floor time waiting for the cloture petition to ripen when they can use the time for other business. Actual all night filibusters are pretty much for show – for example, the Democrats staging an all night discussion of the war in Iraq, or the Republicans wanting to highlight Democratic delays of Bush’s judicial nominees. But the key reason for the development of the current practice is that forcing a “traditional filibuster” is a lot harder on the majority than on the filibusterer. It only takes one person to “suggest the absence of a quorum” and object to a request that the quorum requirement be lifted. It takes 51 Senators to make a quorum and force someone to debate. That’s why the frequent calls to “make them really filibuster!” don’t make a lot of sense.

As for Coburn’s threat to force the 2,000 page bill to be read, that became not much of a threat when Reid set things up to have the vote on the motion to proceed before Thanksgiving and start debate afterwards. The bill would only have to be read after the motion to proceed is adopted and Reid lays down his amendment, which means everyone could just go home and the only people who would be working would be the bill clerks doing the reading, the floor staff, one Senator to preside – plus Coburn (or someone in cahoots with him) would have had to stay on the floor to object to periodic requests from the Chair to waive the bill reading. So by forcing the reading, Coburn would put his own and his cohorts Thanksgiving Dinner in jeopardy, but not anyone else’s.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.