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.

Current controversy

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.

Flip-flop the parties and the rhetoric is strikingly similar to the debate that took place in 2005, when Republicans, who then held the majority, became frustrated after not being able to pass President George W. Bush's judicial nominees because of Democratic-led filibusters. Then-Majority Leader, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. - playing the role of Reid - threatened to change the rules of the filibuster, making it difficult to block judicial nominations. Meantime, then-Minority Leader Reid and his fellow Democrats - including then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were vehemently opposed to changing the filibuster in 2005.

The Republicans then:

"Despite the incredulous protestations of our Democratic colleagues, the Senate has repeatedly adjusted its rules as circumstances dictate." -Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., May 23, 2005.

"All of you know that we're struggling right now with an assault on over 220 years of Senate tradition by the Democrats filibustering circuit court nominees, thus denying us the reasonable responsibility of an up-or-down vote to give advice and consent." -Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., April 13, 2005

And now:

"I think it is a huge mistake, not only for the Senate, but it will impact obviously our short-term ability to come together and work on the really big problems." -McConnell, Nov. 27, 2012

"This is exactly the wrong way to start off on a new year and end an old year with a ton of problems that we have to deal with. ... we ought to be sitting down together and trying to solve the nation's huge, huge deficit and debt problems." -McConnell, Nov. 28, 2012

And the Democrats in 2005:

"If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting and the gridlock and the bitterness will only get worse." -Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., April 13, 2005

Republicans "have to be very careful... before [they] start tinkering with the rules." -Reid, April 13, 2005

"You would be breaking the rules to change the rules, very un-America." -Reid, April 21, 2005

And now:

"The Republicans have increased the numbers of filibusters so out of proportion to any changes here in the Senate. It is hard to comprehend. The Senate is not working as it should." -Reid, Nov. 28, 2012

The American people "want to see progress, not partisan delay games. That hasn't changed, and the President supports Majority Leader Reid's efforts to reform the filibuster process." -White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, Nov. 28, 2012

While Reid continues to threaten a change to the Senate rules and McConnell vows to fight it (this time), Reid might have the votes to go through with it. There are 19 out of 55 Democrats who have never served in the minority and would likely back Reid's current frustration over the lack of Senate action. But some of the longer-serving lawmakers, especially those who have served in both the majority and the minority and believe in the slow-deliberative style of the Senate, are working on a compromise that doesn't involve changing a Senate tradition.

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for