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Possible Senate Impasse Looms Over Filibuster Threat


A major political showdown is looming in the U.S. Senate over a parliamentary delaying tactic known as the filibuster. Majority Republicans are growing impatient with Democratic threats to use the filibuster to block some of President Bush's nominees for federal judgeships.

The word filibuster has its roots in Dutch and Spanish and basically is a reference to a pirate or a freebooter, a term from the 19th Century.

In modern times, the filibuster has come to mean a parliamentary tactic of extended debate and delay intended to block either controversial legislation or a controversial nominee opposed by senators in the minority party.

The classic Senate filibuster was depicted in the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which starred actor Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic senator who refused to stop speaking on the Senate floor until his corrupt opponents surrendered.

"I had some pretty good coaching last night and I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or personal privilege that I can hold this floor almost until Doomsday," Mr. Stewart says in the movie. "In other words, I have got a piece to speak and blow hot or cold, I am going to speak it."

Filibusters were relatively rare in the 19th Century and usually dealt with the issue of slavery. Southern senators often used the filibuster in the 20th Century to block civil rights legislation.

The longest filibuster on record by one senator took place in 1957 when Strom Thurmond of South Carolina spoke for more than 24 hours straight in opposition to a civil rights bill.

The filibuster has become an issue again because Democrats have threatened to use it to block some of President Bush's nominees for federal judges.

"They deserve an up or down vote. I think for the sake of fairness, these good people I have nominated should get a vote," Mr. Bush said.

Republicans control 55 seats in the 100-member Senate. But under Senate rules it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to a final vote. Republicans are threatening to change the rules so that they can end filibusters by a simple majority vote, something that has enraged the Democratic minority in the Senate.

"The Senate will change if the Republicans insist on breaking the Senate rules to change the Senate rules in the middle of the game, if they assault the principle of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution, and if they say that the president should have every nominee, even the most extreme radical, right nominee, we are in for a battle that will change the face of the Senate," said Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.

Political experts see the impending battle over the Senate filibuster as the latest example of the partisan political divide in Washington.

Charles Cook publishes a political newsletter in Washington. He was a recent guest on VOA's "Talk to America" program.

"So, I still think the country is awfully evenly divided, a very polarized country with emotions on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, just incredibly intense," he said.

The Senate has a tradition of unlimited debate and historically has operated on the principle of unanimous consent whereby the concerns of individual senators often must be dealt with, before legislation or nominations are put forward for a vote.

Norman Ornstein is a longtime observer of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He says any weakening of the minority's right to filibuster or block controversial legislation or nominees would have a profound impact on the way the Senate does business.

"The essential character of the Senate in a system, a republican form of democracy, trying to avoid the emotions of the majority, is to provide some outlet for minorities of one sort or the other," Mr. Ornstein said. "Change that and you really do move to the potential tyranny of the majority."

But many Republicans believe Democrats are abusing the right to filibuster by blocking 10 of 45 federal appeals court judges nominated by President Bush.

Congressman Steve King is a Republican from Iowa who believes opposition Democrats are thwarting the will of the people by blocking judicial nominees who would easily win a majority confirmation vote in the Senate.

"This is unprecedented to have judges who have been appointed by a president, many for the whole first term of his presidency, almost four years some of them have hung on the vine [waited for a confirmation vote] with the majority votes [in their favor] there on the floor of the Senate, but blocked up because of an unprecedented use of a term that is used in the Senate, a Senate rule that is not in our Constitution, the filibuster," Mr. King said.

Unless a compromise can be forged, moderates from both political parties warn that a showdown over the filibuster could bring all Senate business to a halt.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, recently addressed the issue during a speech in Washington.

"We are very close, however, to seeing something that has not occurred in this country in a long time and that is a paralysis that essentially stops the process of government and that is very dangerous, very irresponsible," Senantor Hagel said. "And I do not think there is a member of the House [of Representatives] or Senate that wants to leave that as their legacy."

Some recent public opinion polls suggest a majority of those surveyed oppose efforts to weaken the filibuster. But many experts say they are unsure which party would get the blame if the Senate comes to a standstill over the issue.

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