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Jan. 19, 2022, 4:56 p.m. EST

The Senate filibuster: its origins and mechanics, and why it’s likely an insurmountable hurdle to voting-rights legislation

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the fifth time in recent months, Senate Republicans are expected later Wednesday to block Democrats’ sweeping voting legislation this week using a longstanding delaying tactic that can stop a bill in its tracks.

See: Democrats’ big voting bill faces defeat as Manchin, Sinema won’t stop filibuster

Democrats lament — this time — that Senate rules give outsize power to the chamber’s minority. Yet they are hardly alone in their complaints about the tactic, known as the filibuster, which has been used since the 1800s to block legislation.Here’s a look at the filibuster, what it does and how it works.

What the filibuster rule is: Unlike the House, the Senate places few constraints on lawmakers’ right to speak. But senators can use the chamber’s rules to hinder or block votes.

Collectively called filibusters, these procedural moves were emblazoned in the public’s mind in part by the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which James Stewart portrayed a senator who spoke on the chamber’s floor until exhaustion.

In a real-life version of that, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stood continuously by his desk for 24 hours and 18 minutes speaking against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. That’s the longest Senate speech by a single senator for which there are such records.

Democrats say the GOP’s current embrace of the tactic to block progress on their voting rights bill echoes that era. But there are key differences.

Most important, unlike in the 1960s, senators can usually tell Senate leaders or announce publicly that they will filibuster a bill and no lengthy speeches will be required. The system now allows the Senate to conduct other business even as a filibuster is waged.

How it came to be: The term “filibuster” began appearing in the mid-19th century, derived from a Dutch term for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros,” which were used to describe pirates, Senate records show.

The filibuster isn’t in the Constitution and it wasn’t part of the Founding Fathers’ vision for the Senate.

It was created inadvertently after Vice President Aaron Burr complained in 1805 that the chamber’s rule book was redundant and overly complicated, according to historians. In a rules rewrite that followed, senators eliminated a provision that allowed for debate to be cut off. The filibuster was developed as a blocking tactic several decades later.

By the 1920s, it was part of an established playbook for stalling civil-rights legislation.

How filibusters end: Complaints about the snail’s pace of the Senate are as old as the republic, with records from the first Congress in 1789 indicating senators were annoyed by long speeches holding up proceedings.

But after filibusters became a turned-to tactic for limitless debate, the Senate voted in 1917 to let senators end them with a two-thirds majority vote.

In 1975, the Senate lowered that margin to the current three-fifths majority, which in the 100-member chamber means 60 votes are needed to end filibusters against nearly all types of legislation. Only simple majorities are required to end the delays against nominations, thanks to recent years’ rule changes.

Filibusters have become routine against legislation in the past two decades, frustrating both parties. Before then, many of the most well-known filibusters dealt with voting rights:

• A 10-day filibuster in 1891 stopped a bill that would have appointed federal monitors to oversee all phases of elections, a measure vehemently opposed by senators from the South, where Blacks were denied the right to vote, congressional records show.• Southern senators successfully filibustered an anti-lynching bill in 1922. They repeated that in 1938 with a 30-day filibuster.• In 1942, a five-day filibuster by Southern senators killed a bill that would have eliminated poll taxes, which were used to disenfranchise Black voters. Similar legislation continued to spur filibuster challenges until poll taxes were eliminated in 1964.• On Jun 10, 1964, after more than 14-hours of oration, Democratic West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd brought a 60-day filibuster to a close. Minutes later, the Senate began to vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregation. It had become clear that backers had enough votes to cut off debate for the first time in Senate history for a filibuster of civil rights legislation.

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