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What's a filibuster look like? Not Jimmy Stewart

The Senate has approved a bipartisan agreement to limit the use of filibusters during debate and to speed nominations.

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Jimmy Stewart is shown in a scene from the 1939 film 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' Amid all the current Senate talk of rules changes, judicial nominees and partisan bickering, there is a certain reality that has been evident to historians and congressional watchers: They don't make filibusters like they used to. These days, the simple threat of a filibuster shuts down the Senate.

AP / File

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From Jimmy Stewart's fictional all-night talkathon to real-life dramas over World War I and civil rights, the Senate's filibuster has played a notable — sometimes reviled — role in the nation's history. Now the slow-moving, famously deliberative chamber has dialed it back, though modestly.

Filibusters are procedural delays that outnumbered lawmakers use to try killing bills and nominations. But they seldom look like the speech delivered by the exhausted, devoted senator portrayed by Stewart in the film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In fact, the Senate currently has more filibusters than ever. But you'd hardly know it by watching the chamber on C-SPAN television.

These days, lawmakers intent on killing a bill simply inform majority Democrats that to pass the measure, they will need yes votes from 60 of the 100 senators. With Democrats controlling just 55 votes, nothing can pass that threshold without at least some Republican support.

And that has brought the Senate virtually to a standstill on a list of sweeping legislation, from tax hikes on the wealthy to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting gridlock helped inspire recession-weary Americans to slap the last Congress with some of the lowest approval ratings in history.

The Senate late Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan agreement to limit the use of filibusters when the chamber begins debating a bill and when it wants to try writing compromise legislation with the House. It also will speed approval of some nominations by reducing the amount of debate allowed after the Senate has voted to end a filibuster.

But the pact will still leave the minority party other opportunities on every bill to force majorities to get 60 votes to prevail. Still, the changes will clear the way for other legislation, like a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims that the Senate plans to approve Monday.

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