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Filibuster: the Democratic minority's maneuver

WASHINGTON—The filibuster has never been universally loved. It's a guerrilla tactic, employed when the numbers are against you. Its very purpose is to frustrate the majority. It's roguish.

So it's no wonder that when 19th-century lawmakers popularized the parliamentary maneuver, they named it after the Dutch word for "pirate."

In short, a filibuster is unlimited debate. From its beginning, the Senate has abided by rules that permit any senator to speak as long as he or she wants on the legislation at hand.

For years, unlimited debate was just that—unlimited. It didn't even have to be on point—a reading of the Bible or a grocery list would do. A coalition of senators with enough lung capacity could bring legislation to a complete halt.

In 1917, the Senate changed the rules. The talking would stop if two-thirds of the Senate agreed to end debate. That vote was called cloture. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number required for cloture to three-fifths, or 60 votes.

Though championed now by Democrats as a tool that protects checks and balances, the filibuster doesn't have an illustrious history. In the 1950s and 1960s, Southern senators used it to block civil rights legislation.

Still, the number of filibusters that the Democrats have used against President Bush's judicial nominees is unprecedented.

Both sides have reached back to the pages of history to make their case for or against the filibuster.

Republicans argue the Constitution is on their side because it specifies instances when supermajorities are required—treaty approvals, for instance. On judges, the Constitution says the full Senate must act to give the president advice and consent. The supermajority required by a filibuster, Republicans and some legal scholars say, is therefore unconstitutional.

Democrats and their battery of legal scholars argue the framers of the Constitution stressed the need to protect the rights of the minority. Without the filibuster, they argue, a minority party would be defenseless against a president whose party controls the Senate.

That debate, however, is largely academic.

The bottom line, if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ever decides to bring the issue to a vote, will be how a handful of Republicans feel about upending a rule that could come back and bite them where they sit.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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