Speaking of Filibusters

There's a long, rich history of big-time talkers. You have a few hours?

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Bill Frist's "wet kiss to the far right"—Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's description of the Tennessean's renewed pledge to deep-six the filibuster—pushes the Senate one step further toward the ultimate knock-down, drag-out fight.

The congressional filibuster has a long history. In 1841, the Democrats, then in the minority, were trying to block Henry Clay's bank bill when Clay, a Whig, moved to change Senate rules to limit debate. Thomas Hart Benton accused Clay of limiting the Senate's right to unlimited debate. Such debate remained in place in the Senate until 1917, when Woodrow Wilson suggested, and the Senate agreed, to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote—a tactic known as "cloture." In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60).

Filibusters achieved special fame when Southerners used them to block civil rights legislation, and they've played a major part in wrangles about wealth and the future of oil. A filibuster defeated LBJ in his efforts to make Abe Fortas chief justice of the Supreme Court. A few of the most celebrated moments in filibuster history:


1935: Huey Long and the National Recovery Act

As a senator, Huey Long carried on a war with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, calling him a "Prince Franklin," whose "court" was the "reigning empire of Saint Vitus," featuring "the lord high chamberlain" Harold Ickes ("the chinch bug of Chicago") and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace ("the ignoramus of Iowa").

Filibustering was second nature to Huey Long. Given the occasion, he would spring to his feet and talk for hours. But he nearly outdid himself on June 12, 1935, when he arose to oppose a section of a bill he thought would give his opponents in Louisiana jobs under an extension of the National Recovery Act.

From the outset, Huey said he would talk on the Constitution, which the New Deal in his view had turned into a collection of "ancient and forgotten lore." He read the document in its entirety, pausing at each section to discuss its origin and meaning. Some senators fell asleep. Others left for the cloakroom. Huey challenged Vice President John Nance Garner to make every senator hear him out, but Garner replied, "That would be unusual cruelty under the Bill of Rights." At 10 p.m., Huey announced, "I seem to have new inspiration," and vowed to speak for another 10 hours. He asked other senators for things to talk about; there were no responses. Then reporters in the press galleries sent down requests. When he exhausted his supply of requests, he introduced topics of his own, according to T. Harry Williams, whose biography of Long is the source for much of this item.

"He put into the record," Williams writes, "a detailed description of how to fry oysters and then demonstrated how to prepare potlikker, holding up a wastebasket to represent a cooking pot. The Senate should print his recipes as public documents and send out several million copies, he declared, and for good measure he threw in another one on how to concoct a Roquefort cheese salad dressing."

Long himself couldn't get a bite to eat lest he lose the floor. The worst problem was that Long hadn't taken a pee in a long time, and at 3:50 a.m. he couldn't hold out any longer. The Kingfish announced he would yield the floor to seek a conference with the leadership, and he ran for the toilet.


1957: Strom Thurmond and civil rights legislation

Strom Thurmond's famous filibuster followed an eight-day filibuster by Georgia senator Richard Russell that resulted in watering down that year's civil rights bill, removing its enforcement provisions. As Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson describe the situation in their book Ol' Strom, even though the bill was pretty much defanged, Thurmond was still hell-bent on fighting it. Southern Democrats agreed not to run an organized filibuster; they left it up to individual members to take up the battle. Thurmond decided to fight on alone, and to prepare himself, he took steam baths every day to dehydrate his body so it could absorb fluids without his having to leave the Senate chamber for the bathroom. On the day he was scheduled to start speaking at 9 p.m., he took another steam and told his staff to get ready. He was going to discuss provisions requiring trial by jury. (Civil rights advocates didn't like this, because Southern juries were practically all white.) Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 p.m. and didn't quit until 9:12 the next evening. It was the longest filibuster in Senate history.

Aides tried to avoid defeat by the toilet by setting up a bucket in the cloakroom where Thurmond could pee, keeping one foot on the Senate floor while doing so. The filibuster did him no good. Southerners did not spring to his aide, and his distant cousin Senator Herman Talmadge from Georgia accused Thurmond of "grandstanding." The legislation passed.


1953: Wayne Morse and tidelands oil

Disgusted by Dwight Eisenhower's choice of Richard Nixon to be his running mate in 1952, Oregon Republican senator Wayne Morse quit the party and became an independent and, later, a Democrat. Always independent in thought, he was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

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