Explainer: A look at the Senate filibuster and the political storm over it

Minority Republicans used a Senate filibuster to block a Democratic bill that would have launched a bipartisan probe of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. It was the first time under President Joe Biden that the GOP used the tactic to derail major legislation. Yet the Republican victory Friday may prod Democrats closer to curbing or eliminating a legislative maneuver that’s been the bane of Senate majorities since the Founding Fathers. Unlike the House, the Senate places few constraints on lawmakers’ right to speak. Senators can also use the chamber’s rules to hinder or block votes. Collectively these procedural moves are called filibusters. Senate records say the term began appearing in the mid-19th century. The word comes from a Dutch term for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros” that were used to describe pirates. Filibusters were emblazoned in the public’s mind in part by the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Jimmy Stewart portrayed a senator who spoke on the chamber’s floor until exhaustion. In a real-life version of that, Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., stood continuously by his desk for 24 hours and 18 minutes speaking against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the longest Senate speech by a single senator for which there are records of speaking length. Those days are mostly gone. Senators usually tell Senate leaders or announce publicly that they will filibuster a bill, with no lengthy speeches required. The impact usually flows not from delaying Senate business but from the need to […]

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