Filibustering the History of Filibustering


Our story thus far: While the George W. Bush is busy holding hands with dreamy Crown Prince Abdullah (not that there's anything wrong with that), the Democrats continue to threaten to filibuster the Republican president's judicial appointees.

Miffed, Republicans threaten to "go nuclear" (a subtle attack on Saudi reluctance to guarantee cheap oil?) and change the rules governing debate and votes in the Senate–a move that would allow for a simple up-or-down vote on judicial appointees in the World's Greatest (and Mostly Anonymous) Deliberative Body.

But the nuclear option is wildly unpopular with the all-knowing, all-seeing American public. Indeed, a recent poll finds:

But by a 2 to 1 ratio, the public rejected easing Senate rules in a way that would make it harder for Democratic senators to prevent final action on Bush's nominees. Even many Republicans were reluctant to abandon current Senate confirmation procedures: Nearly half opposed any rule changes, joining eight in 10 Democrats and seven in 10 political independents, the poll found.

Whole results here.

I have to say that I really don't care about filibuster rules per se. Or, for that matter, political squabbling over judicial appointees. All's fair in this game. When they had the chance, the Republicans obstructed President Clinton's picks as much as they could. The Dems, in a minority, are doing the same to a second-term pres with sinking ratings (currently at 47 percent for overall rating, matching his all-time low) and a Social Security privatization plan that's selling about as well as Gigli DVDs at the local Blockbuster franchise.

But what bugs me about the Great Filibuster Debate of '05 (remember it now, because we will have certainly forgotten all about it by the end of the year) is the absolute lack of context on the key issue: Debate rules in the Senate, which are discussed as if they were handed down to Moses by Zeus written in cunieform from high atop Mt. Fuji. As this old Fox News story from 2003 suggests, the truth is a little more mundane.

The filibuster is an attempt to forestall votes on legislation by invoking the Senate's willingness to engage in long-winded, never-ending, self-aggrandizing "debate." (This was not always simply the privilege of senators; "in Congress' early years, representatives as well as senators could use the filibuster technique." )

The first senatorial filibuster dates back only to 1841 and legislation to curtail them by having a two-thirds majority tell their august colleagues to shut the hell up dates back to 1917, when Woodrow "He Kept Us Out of War" Wilson wanted to get in on the action in World War I. Wilson–a virulent racist, by the way–pushed "Rule 22," which ended the era of unlimited debate (though, as West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd reminds us every time he opens his trap, nothing has ended the era of Castro-like senatorial bloviation).

The requirement of two-thirds of senators voting to end debate (i.e., "cloture") was reduced to three-fifths (60) in 1975.

GOP senators want the new simple majority rule to apply only to judicial nominees. Constitutionally, each chamber of Congress gets to set their rules on this sort of thing, so it should be within Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and his usual gang of idiots to force through the change. It may well be unpopular and it may well never actually be put into action (the "nuclear option" is at least two years old but like the H-bomb itself, has never been used). But it involves something less than the very heavens and earth shaking.

And I suspect a deal will be cut before anything changes. As the tonsorially challenged yet influential Democratic senator from the small state of Delaware, Joe Biden, recently told The Washington Post:

"I think we should compromise and say to them that we're willing to—of the seven judges—we'll let a number of them go through, the two most extreme not go through, and put off this [rule-change] vote."

As with all too much in D.C., this is likely to end not with a bang but with a series of whimpers.