The 5 Longest Filibusters in US History

Strom Thurmond
Sen. Strom Thurmond points to clock in the Capitol during a break in his 24 hours and 18 minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957,. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

The longest filibusters in American political history can be measured in hours, not minutes. They were conducted on the floor of the U.S. Senate during charged debates on civil rights, public debt, and the military. 

In a filibuster, a senator may continue to speak indefinitely to prevent a final vote on the bill. Some read the phone book, cite recipes for fried oysters, or read the Declaration of Independence.

So who conducted the longest filibusters? How long did the longest filibusters last? Which important debates were put on hold because of the longest filibusters?

Let's take a look.

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U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond

The record for the longest filibuster goes to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to U.S. Senate records.

Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 p.m. on Aug. 28 and continued until 9:12 p.m. the following evening, reciting the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, President George Washington's farewell address and other historical documents along the way.

Thurmond was not the only lawmaker to filibuster on the issue, however. According to Senate records, teams of senators consumed 57 days filibustering between March 26 and June 19, the day the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed.

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U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato

The second longest filibuster was conducted by U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, who spoke for 23 hours and 30 minutes to stall debate on an important military bill in 1986.

D'Amato was incensed about an amendment the bill that would have cut off funding for a jet trainer plane built by a company headquartered in his state, according to published reports.
It was but one of D'Amato's most famous and longest filibusters, though.

In 1992, D'Amato held forth on a "gentleman's filibuster" for 15 hours and 14 minutes. He was holding up a pending $27 billion tax bill, and quit his filibuster only after the House of Representatives had adjourned for the year, meaning the legislation had died.

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U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse

The third longest filibuster in American political history was conducted by U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, described as a "blunt-spoken, iconoclastic populist."

Morse was nicknamed "the Tiger of the Senate" because of his tendency to thrive on controversy, and he certainly lived up to that moniker. He was known to speak well into the night on a daily basis when the Senate was in session.

Morse spoke for 22 hours and 26 minutes to stall debate on the Tidelands Oil bill in 1953, according to U.S. Senate archives.

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U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette Sr.

The fourth longest filibuster in American political history was conducted by U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin, who spoke for 18 hours and 23 minutes to stall debate in 1908.

Senate archives described La Follette as a "fiery progressive senator," a "stem-winding orator and champion of family farmers and the laboring poor."

The fourth longest filibuster halted debate on the Aldrich-Vreeland currency bill, which permitted the U.S. Treasury to lend currency to banks during fiscal crises, according to Senate records.

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U.S. Sen. William Proxmire

The fifth longest filibuster in American political history was conducted by U.S. Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who spoke for 16 hours and 12 minutes to stall debate on an increase of the public debt ceiling in 1981.

Proxmire was concerned about the nation's rising debt level. The bill he wanted to stall action on authorizing a total debt of $1 trillion.

Proxmire held forth from 11 a.m. on Sept. 28 through 10:26 a.m. the following day. And though his fiery speech earned him widespread attention, his marathon filibuster came back to haunt him.

His detractors in the Senate pointed out taxpayers were paying tens of thousands of dollars to keep the chamber open all night for his speech.

Brief History of the Filibuster

Using filibusters to delay or block action on bills in the Senate has a long history. Coming from a Dutch word meaning “pirate,” the term filibuster was first used in the 1850s when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill. In the early years of Congress, representatives, as well as senators, could filibuster bills. However, as the number of representatives grew, the House amended its rules placing specific time limits on debates. In the 100-member Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.

The filibuster was rarely used during most of the pre-Civil War period, as senators from northern states sought to prevent the secession of southern states by making compromises with southern senators over contentious issues such as enslavement. This was especially true in the case of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which saw new states admitted to the Union in pairs to preserve the sectional balance in the Senate. For example, Missouri was admitted as a state in which enslavement was legal, along with Maine, where the practice was banned. Until the late 1830s, the filibuster remained a solely theoretical option that was never actually used.

In 1837, a group of Whig Party senators attempted to block allies of Democratic President Andrew Jackson from striking out an 1834 resolution censuring him for refusing to turn documents over to Congress. A critical moment in filibuster history occurred in 1841 during a heated debate on a bill to charter a new national bank opposed by President Jackson. After Whig Senator Henry Clay tried to end the debate via a simple majority vote, Democratic Senator William R. King threatened to stage a lengthy filibuster, saying that Clay “may make his arrangements at his boarding house for the winter.” Clay backed down after other senators sided with King. The incident foretold the eventual emergence of the controversial cloture rule.

The Cloture Rule

In 1917, during World War I, at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate voted 76-3 to adopt a rule allowing a two-thirds supermajority vote of the senators voting to end a filibuster, a procedure known as “cloture.” The cloture rule was adopted after 12 anti-war senators had used a filibuster to kill a bill that would have allowed President Wilson to arm merchant marine vessels in the face of unrestricted attacks by German submarines. 

In 1919, the first recorded cloture vote ended debate on U.S. adoption of the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. The vote led to the rejection of the treaty against the wishes of President Wilson—the cloture rule’s first champion,

In 1975 the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds of senators voting to the current three-fifths of all senators duly chosen and sworn, or 60 of the 100-member Senate. A successful cloture vote allows for a maximum of 30 additional hours of debate on a proposal. During this time, senators can only offer amendments that are germane to the issue at hand and were submitted in writing before the cloture vote.

The ‘Nuclear Option’ to End Filibusters

The so-called “nuclear option” is a controversial parliamentary procedure that allows the majority party in the Senate to end filibusters by the minority party. The procedure allows the Senate to override the 60-vote rule required to close debate by a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the two-thirds (67-vote) supermajority vote normally required to amend the rules.

The term “nuclear option” was coined by former Republican Senate Majority leader Trent Lott in 2003 when Democrats threatened a lengthy filibuster to block several of then-President George W. Bush’s nominees. Republicans discussed invoking the parliamentary move since, like a nuclear explosion, it cannot be controlled once it is unleashed.

Former GOP Senate Majority leader Trent Lott coined the term because both parties saw it as an unthinkable final recourse, just like nuclear war. During a standoff over George W. Bush nominees in 2003, Republicans discussed invoking the parliamentary move by using the codeword “The Hulk" since it, like the superhero alter ego, cannot be controlled once it is unleashed. Senators who want to give the maneuver a more positive public image, call it “The Constitutional Option.”

In November 2013, Senate Democrats led by Harry Reid used the nuclear option to end a Republican filibuster holding up President Barack Obama’s executive branch nominations and federal judgeship appointments. In 2017 and again in 2018, Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell used the option to prevent Democratic filibusters of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justice nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. As of November 2020, a three-fifths majority vote is still required to end filibusters on regular legislation.

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Murse, Tom. "The 5 Longest Filibusters in US History." ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2022, Murse, Tom. (2022, May 4). The 5 Longest Filibusters in US History. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The 5 Longest Filibusters in US History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).