(CBS NEWS) -- 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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.