The Long, Illustrious History of Filibusters

Filibusters (search) have a long and illustrious history.

The term, from a Dutch word meaning "pirate," became popular in the 1850s to describe efforts to control the Senate floor in order to prevent action on a bill.

The first recorded filibuster came in 1841, just after the Whigs won the White House and the Senate and wanted to give patronage jobs to their supporters, Senate historian Richard A. Baker said.

"Democrats decided they would talk it to death," said Baker, who said the filibuster lasted two weeks before agreement was reached.

In Congress' early years, representatives as well as senators could use the filibuster technique. As the House grew in numbers, however, it became necessary to revise House rules to limit debate. In the smaller Senate, which has only two members for each state, senators believed any member should have an unlimited right to speak.

Unlimited debate remained in place in the Senate until 1917, when President Wilson (search) suggested, and the Senate adopted, "Rule 22." The rule allowed the Senate to end debate with two-thirds of the Senate, a procedure known as "cloture."

Wilson wanted to get around senators who were filibustering his efforts to bring America into World War I (search), Baker said.

Lawmakers had used a 23-day, end-of-session filibuster to defeat his proposal to arm merchant ships, which led Wilson to say the "Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible."

The Senate adopted Rule 22, and the United States entered World War I.

In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes needed for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths. Since the Senate already was at 100 members by then, the number dropped from 67 to 60. Today, filibusters continue as an effective tool to block legislation and nominations, partly because it still is difficult to get 60 votes in the Senate.

The record for the longest individual speech belongs to South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who unsuccessfully filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., angered by the Democrats' filibusters of several of President Bush's nominations of federal judges, has proposed reducing the number of senators needed to force a vote on a judicial nominee on a sliding scale. The number needed would drop by three votes after each successive cloture roll call until only 51 votes, or a simple majority, would be needed.

It was voted out of the Senate Rules Committee in June but has yet to be considered by the full Senate.

Republicans also have threatened to request a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian that Senate rules make filibusters on judicial nominations illegal . A parliamentarian's ruling can be upheld by a simple majority of senators.

That plan is referred to by both parties as the "nuclear option." Democrats say it would blow up the Senate's collegiality and force them to bring all action to a halt.