With Congress poised to vote on the so-called nuclear option, one
fact has been largely lost amid the debate: Restrictions on the use
of filibusters are already in place on a host of matters, from
budgets to resolutions granting war powers to the president.
Obviously, the question on the floor this week - judicial
appointments - is unique. Democrats are eager to preserve their
current ability to stall a vote, especially on nominees to the
Supreme Court. And Republicans are just as eager to change the rules
so that 51 Senators, rather than 60, can end debate on a nominee.
But the fight over judges is hardly as pure a contest over Senate
traditions as many people believe. The use of filibusters to prolong
debate, though revered by many as a tool for the Senate minority,
has been progressively curtailed in recent years on a host of
One key reason: A rising belief in official Washington that the
only way to get contentious legislation out of Congress is to rein
in debate and amendment. The restrictions are also, in part, a
holdover from the early 1970s, when a Democratic Congress sought to
bolster the power of the legislative branch clout against an
"imperial" (and Republican) presidency.
"When we talk about 'unlimited debate' in the Senate, we've
already limited that unlimited debate over the last 30 years in a
major way," says former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove, now a
professor at George Washington University. "We have on the books
probably a couple of hundred laws that set up specific legislative
vehicles that cannot be filibustered or only amended in a very
Consider some big-ticket items now before Congress on which
lawmakers have given up their rights to filibuster.
* The Pentagon's 2006 Base Realignment and Closure plan, which
proposes closing 180 sites.
* The pending Central American Free Trade Agreement.
* President Bush's proposed $70 billion in tax cuts and $35
billion in mandatory spending cuts, protected by budget
* Drilling in the Arctic Regional Wildlife Refuge. The years-
long effort by Republicans to pass this legislation may finally
succeed this year, because this time it is protected from filibuster
as part of the budget reconciliation.
The first curbs on extended debate came in 1917, after Congress
refused to move to a vote on President Wilson's request to arm the
merchant marine. Much of the impetus to rein in the filibuster in
the 1960s and '70s came from liberal Democrats, whose main
experience with extended debate had been as a hammer by conservative
southerners to stop civil rights legislation.
"In the 1960s the word filibuster only meant one thing in the
Senate, with very few exceptions," explains Mr. Dove. "Successful
filibusters were filibusters against civil rights legislation. And
if you were going to create an atmosphere in which civil rights
legislation would get through more easily, you needed to change the
cloture rule" - the votes needed to end debate. …