What Is a Filibuster in the US Senate?

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A filibuster is a delaying tactic used in the United States Senate to block a bill, amendment, resolution, or other measure being considered by preventing it from coming to a final vote on passage. Filibusters can happen only in the Senate since the chamber’s rules of debate place very few limits on Senators’ rights and opportunities in the legislative process. Specifically, once a Senator has been recognized by the presiding officer to speak on the floor, that Senator is allowed to speak for as long as he or she wishes.

The term “filibuster” comes from the Spanish word filibustero, which came to Spanish from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, a “pirate” or “robber.” In the 1850s, the Spanish word filibustero was used to refer to American soldiers of fortune that traveled Central America and the Spanish West Indies stirring up rebellions. The word was first used in Congress in the 1850s when a debate lasted so long that a disgruntled senator called the delaying speakers a pack of filibusteros.

Ancient Roman senator Cato the Younger was one of the first known politicians to use the filibuster, often speaking from morning until dark. The use of long-winded speeches to delay action on legislation in the U.S. Congress took place on September 22, 1789, during the first session of the Senate. On that auspicious date, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, after enduring a rambling day-long address by Virginia Senator William Grayson, wrote in his diary that the “design of the Virginians . . . was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.”

By the 1850’s the strategy of “talking a bill to death” in the Senate had become so common that it gained the label “filibuster,” from the Spanish “filibusteros.” The term became a common part of today’s political lexicon in February 1853, when a frustrated North Carolina senator George Badger complained of “filibustering speeches.”

No Filibusters in the House

Filibusters cannot happen in the House of Representatives because House rules require specific time limits on debates.In addition, filibusters on a bill being considered under the federal budgetbudget reconciliation” process are not allowed.

Ending a Filibuster: The Cloture Motion

Under Senate Rule 22, the only way opposing Senators can stop a filibuster is to gain passage of a resolution known as a “cloture” motion, which requires a three-fifths majority vote (normally 60 of 100 votes) of the Senators present and voting.

Stopping a filibuster through the passage of a cloture motion is not as easy or as quick it sounds. First, at least 16 Senators must get together to present the cloture motion for consideration. Then, the Senate typically does not vote on cloture motions until the second day of the session after the motion was made.

Even after a cloture motion is passed and the filibuster ends, an additional 30 hours of debate is usually allowed on the bill or measure in question.

Moreover, the Congressional Research Service has reported that over the years, most bills lacking clear support from both political parties may face at least two filibusters before the Senate votes on final passage of the bill: first, a filibuster on a motion to proceed to the bill’s consideration and, second, after the Senate agrees to this motion, a filibuster on the bill itself.

When originally adopted in 1917, Senate Rule 22 required that a cloture motion to end debate needed a two-thirds “supermajority” vote (normally 67 votes) to pass. Over the next 50 years, cloture motions usually failed to garner the 67 votes needed to pass. Finally, in 1975, the Senate amended Rule 22 to require the current three-fifths or 60 votes for passage.

The Nuclear Option

On November 21, 2013, the Senate voted to require a simple majority vote (normally 51 votes) to pass cloture motions ending filibusters on presidential nominations for executive branch positions, including Cabinet secretary posts, and lower federal court judgeships only. Backed by Senate Democrats, who held a majority in the Senate at the time, the amendment to Rule 22 became known as the “nuclear option.”

In practice, the nuclear option allows the Senate to override any of its own rules of debate or procedure by a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than by a supermajority of 60 votes. The term “nuclear option” comes from traditional references to nuclear weapons as the ultimate power in warfare.

While actually used only twice, most recently in 2017, the threat of the nuclear option in the Senate was first recorded in 1917. In 1957, Vice President Richard Nixon, in his role as president of the Senate, issued a written opinion concluding that the U.S. Constitution grants the presiding officer of the Senate the authority to override existing procedural rules

On April 6, 2017, Senate Republicans set a new precedent by using the nuclear option to expedite the successful confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. The move marked the first time in Senate history that the nuclear option had been used to end debate on the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice.

Origins of the Filibuster

In the early days of Congress, filibusters were allowed in both the Senate and the House. However, as the number of representatives grew through the process of apportionment, the leaders of the House realized that in order to deal with bills in a timely manner, House rules had to be amended to limit time allowed for debate. In the smaller Senate, however, unlimited debate has continued based on the chamber's belief that all senators should have the right to speak as long as they wish on any issue being considered by the full Senate.

While the popular 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith taught many Americans about filibusters, history has provided some even more impactful real-life filibusters.

In the 1930s, Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana launched a number of memorable filibusters against banking bills he felt favored the rich over the poor. During one of his filibusters in 1933, Sen. Long held the floor for 15 straight hours, during which he often entertained spectators and other Senators alike by reciting Shakespeare and reading his favorite recipes for Louisiana-style “pot-likker” dishes.

South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond highlighted his 48 years in the Senate by conducting the longest solo filibuster in history by speaking for a staggering 24 hours and 18 minutes, nonstop, against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Filibuster in the US Senate?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-filibuster-3322288. Longley, Robert. (2021, July 31). What Is a Filibuster in the US Senate? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-filibuster-3322288 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Filibuster in the US Senate?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-filibuster-3322288 (accessed June 5, 2023).