Print options

September 25, 2013

Trying to Kill a Bill with Talk

by VOA News

For 21 hours and 19 minutes, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz made his case against Obamacare, more formally known as the Affordable Care Act, on the Senate floor.

When he began around 2:40 pm Tuesday, he declared he would speak out against funding the act until he "is no longer able to stand."



Media outlets described his speech as a "fake filibuster" or a "faux filibuster," and even, political theater.

All of this made us wonder exactly what a filibuster is. We turned to VOA Senate Correspondent Michael Bowman to find out.

Michael Bowman: "Well, a filibuster is a procedural motion. It is something that happens in the Senate from time to time. It is used quite often today. It was not used so often in the past. The word 'filibuster' actually comes from a Dutch word, meaning 'pirate.' The idea being that a pirate may seize control of your ship and belongings, and a senator who is filibustering seizes control of the Senate floor.

VOA: What is the idea behind a filibuster?

Michael Bowman: "A filibuster comes from the Senate tradition that the Senate is the chamber of ample and unlimited debate. And what a senator may do when a bill is being debated, is come to the floor and speak on an unlimited basis. And it used to be that a senator could come and speak for as long as he could stand or until his energy gave out.  Now, most filibusters are conducted silently. A senator simply puts a motion in for a “hold” to hold up a bill, and the only way to break that is with a 60 vote majority. That is how a filibuster is broken, when 60 out of 100 senators come together.

VOA: So, exactly what was Senator Cruz doing?

Michael Bowman:  "Senator Cruz gave a very, very long speech that began on Tuesday afternoon and he continued up ‘til about noon on Wednesday, talking for a total of 21 hours. He used time that is allotted to senators to debate. During those 21 and hours and 19 minutes, Cruz had control of the Senate floor, but he was on a time limit. And that limit was reached at 12 p.m. Wednesday, at which time the senator simply sat down and stopped speaking. Noon is when the Senate formally began the day's business, meaning all those hours before was actually an extension of yesterday's business. 

Now Senate majority leader Harry Reid will call for a vote on the legislation that includes the provision on Obamacare. Were this a true filibuster, Senator Cruz would be able to speak and speak and speak and speak and speak and there is no way he could be interrupted. Actually, a filibuster is talking a bill to death."

VOA: How effective are filibusters historically speaking?
 
Michael Bowman
: "Filibusters are very effective. Some people believe that, in fact, the filibuster has ground the Senate and Congress and our nation's entire political system to a halt. In effect, all votes of consequence today require 60 votes to move forward - that is a super majority.  Three-fifths of the Senate now on almost any bill of consequence in order for that bill to move forward. So that has had a tremendous impact."

Earlier this year, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky had a marathon session on the Senate floor where he spoke for 13 hours on a bill regarding the use of unmanned aircraft -- drones -- on United States soil."

VOA:  Not to be indelicate, but there are certain human needs that must be attended to. How is this issue handled in a traditional filibuster?

Michael Bowman: "The way that it works is that when a senator, when he or she is speaking, has the floor until he or she gives it up. However the senator can yield for a question. And it is understood that another senator can come to the floor and ask a question and if the senator who is engaging in a filibuster or a long speech (as in the case of Senator Cruz) yields to that request, a question may be asked and the senator will answer.   

However, the definition of what constitutes a question is fairly flexible. And, in fact, what has been happening is that Senator Cruz did not speak on the floor non-stop for those 21 hours and 19 minutes. He has been speaking for long periods of time, then yielding for a questions have gone on for 15 minutes or a half an hour, and in a couple of cases even longer, and that gave the senator the chance to leave the Senate floor and take care of human needs. I believe he did not get any sleep during that period, but he did leave the floor at times while maintaining control."  

The Cruz marathon speech garnered a variety of reactions on Twitter.  Here is a sampling:

VOA's Catherine Maddux contributed to this article.