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.
But before that, on April 24, 1953, Morse engaged in the second-longest filibuster in Senate history (more than 22 hours) during an intense debate over tidelands oil legislation. This was aimed at returning to Texas submerged lands, rich in oil and gas, in the Gulf of Mexico. Morse thought the submerged land, despite contradictory promises in Texas’s annexation contract, should remain under U.S. sovereignty. So he stood up to fight the bill. And he didn’t sit down for 22 hours and 26 minutes. But the bill passed, removing some of the most valuable land in the public domain and giving it back to the states. The oil industry dominated state legislatures, and beginning with the tidelands oil legislation, the industry got a lock on the nation’s key reserves of oil and gas.
1964: Robert Byrd and the Civil Rights Act
In the early ’40s, Robert Byrd was a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan. In 1945, he vowed to never fight “with a Negro by my side.” By 1952, he “became disinterested” in the Klan. But during the heated debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the West Virginia Democratic senator joined with other Southerners in fighting the legislation with a lengthy filibuster.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was created to protect voting rights—basically establishing them for the first time for many Southern black people—eliminate discrimination in public facilities and federally assisted programs, extend the Commission on Civil Rights, and create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On the 56th day of a filibuster intended to block the bill’s passage, Byrd spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes, concluding at 9:51 a.m. on the morning of June 10. Georgia’s Richard Russell continued after Byrd stepped down from the podium, but he was cut off by a cloture vote.
1968: The GOP and Abe Fortas
In June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren told President Lyndon Johnson that he planned to retire from the Supreme Court, giving LBJ enough time to appoint a new chief justice and get him confirmed before a new president took office. The Democrats feared that Nixon might win, and Abe Fortas, already on the Supreme Court, had been a Johnson crony. With LBJ all the talk about separation of powers didn’t mean much, and Fortas, even while on the Supreme Court, regularly attended White House staff meetings; he briefed the president on secret deliberations; and on behalf of LBJ, he pressured senators who opposed the war in Vietnam. When the Judiciary Committee revealed that Fortas received a private stipend, equivalent to 40 percent of his court salary, to teach an American University summer course, his nomination lost traction in the Senate. Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader, who had backed Fortas, withdrew support, as did Johnson’s mentor, Georgia’s Richard Russell. The debate disintegrated into a filibuster, led by Michigan senator Robert Griffin and others, and on October 1, 1968, the Senate failed to invoke cloture. Johnson then withdrew the nomination.
Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin and Christine Lu