Last True Filibuster 13 Years Ago

It was a Senate filibuster that did justice to all the celluloid versions and spirited talkathons of bygone years. New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (search) chattered, crooned "South of the Border," answered questions from a visiting colleague around 3 a.m., recited names and controlled all Senate business for 15 hours, 14 minutes.

The issue was parochial for the Republican just weeks before a tough re-election contest in a Democratic-leaning state - the fate of a small typewriter company in Cortland, N.Y.

The year was 1992.

George Bush's father was president. Microsoft was shipping Windows 3.1 to computer owners. Johnny Carson hosted his final "Tonight" show. And it was the last time that a senator pulled an all-nighter in the 20th century tradition of Senate filibusters.

"I really wanted to keep going ... and I could have," D'Amato said in an interview 13 years later.

Amid all the current Senate talk of rules changes, judicial nominees and partisan bickering, there is a certain reality that has been evident to historians and congressional watchers: They don't make filibusters like they used to.

A change in Senate procedure in the 1960s and, more recently, the simple threat of a filibuster (search) have turned those marathon sessions into something of a rarity, best known in history books and Hollywood.

"The Senate doesn't really conduct those 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' filibusters," said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie.

Since 1992, there have been multihour, round-the-clock sessions with several senators taking turns speaking, and two years ago, Sen. Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., spoke for eight and a half hours on the issue that is roiling the Senate today - the right to filibuster a president's judicial nominees.

But the memorable filibusters are a thing of the past, in large part because of former Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., who after becoming majority leader in 1961 instituted a "two-track system" that would allow time for filibusters as well as work on other legislation.

Spreading the word of a potential filibuster also has proven effective in forcing lawmakers to think twice about talking nonstop.

"The odd situation is you don't have to filibuster to filibuster," said Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Boston University.

It wasn't like that in 1957 when Sen. Strom Thurmond (search), then a South Carolina Democrat, set the record that still stands today. Thurmond railed against a limited civil rights bill for 24 hours, 18 minutes, during which the former Dixiecrat read the texts of elections laws for all 48 states. The Senate later passed the legislation.

Thurmond's filibuster broke the record of Sen. Wayne Morse (search), the Oregon Republican-turned-Democrat, who in 1953 spoke for 22 hours, 26 minutes against giving states control over oil leases.

Morse had surpassed the mark of Louisiana's Huey P. Long (search), who filibustered over President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to end Senate confirmation for senior employees of the National Recovery Administration.

In 1935, Long spoke for 15 hours, 30 minutes, spicing his rant by reciting recipes for preparing fried oysters and other Southern specialties.

Germaneness is never an issue during filibusters; senators can read law books, the Bible, recipes, although Ritchie said they tend to speak on the subject.

Some filibusters have been driven by matters that divide a nation, such as civil rights, while others represent a single enraged lawmaker. In 1981, Sen. William Proxmire (search), D-Wis., was furious with the rising national debt ceiling, and spoke for 16 hours, 12 minutes.

D'Amato's filibusters had more to do with constituents and politics. In 1986, D'Amato set the record for the second-longest filibuster - 23 hours, 30 minutes. At issue was an amendment to a defense bill that would have stopped funds for a jet trainer plane built by a Farmingdale, N.Y. company. The talkathon came just weeks shy of a re-election contest for the man who once had the moniker "Senator Pothole."

Recalling his last filibuster, D'Amato still sounded indignant more than a decade later. A House-Senate conference writing a tax bill had dropped a provision to help the typewriter company, something D'Amato learned of around 6 p.m.

"I am just absolutely bonkers," he recalled. "So I said, `You know what, I'm going to hold this bill up.' I went and had dinner. I didn't have anything to drink, took no liquids, went to the Senate floor, probably around 9, 9:30 and started talking, and talking, and talking, and talking."

He stopped the next day when he learned the House had left for the session and nothing could be done to change the bill. There had been no bathroom breaks. "You have the mental discipline to shut down," he said - but the senator, then 55, found it hard to get his body working again despite a large bowl of soup and coffee.

He remembers his time like a professional athlete quoting the latest statistics.

"I didn't look to set records ... I look at this thing now and I see Huey Long spoke 15-16 minutes longer than me, Proxmire about an hour. I certainly could have caught those two," D'Amato said.