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New Senate Session Stalled By Old Senate Tradition

February 21, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Even though Sen. Robert Dole is encountering his first filibuster as majority leader, the practice of blocking or delaying action on a bill through extended talk is an old Senate tradition.

And while current-day filibusters rarely take on the non-stop character of the around-the-clock civil rights talkathons of the 1950s and 1960s, the tactic has been used increasingly in recent years.

The first Senate filibuster of 1985 began this week as a group of farm state senators marshaled delaying tactics against the nomination of Edwin Meese III to be attorney general in hopes of getting consideration for farm aid legislation.

Dole, a Kansas Republican, accused the filibustering senators of blackmail and hinted he might force the Senate to meet continuously to break the delaying tactics.

It is because of the very nature of Senate rules - which tend to favor unlimited debate - that filibusters are difficult to break.

Dole will have to either wear out the talkers - and probably in the process wear out the rest of the Senate - or go through the so-called ″cloture″ process, which can tie up the Senate for several additional days and which requires votes by 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to break the filibuster.

Fililbusters are frequent in the Senate, but almost never happen in the House of Representatives, which has strict rules on the length of time each bill may be debated.

In the Senate, any senator can speak for as long as he likes on any bill or any subject at all - unless there is a unanimous agreement to restrict debate or a cloture petition is invoked.

And, even with cloture, debate can still continue for an additional 100 hours.

That allows a small group of senators - or even a single member - to do considerable damage by just blabbing interminably.

The longest non-stop speech of this decade was in 1981, when Sen. William O. Proxmire, D-Wis., talked for 16 hours and 37 minutes in an outburst against raising the federal debt ceiling.

However, the all-time record is held by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957 against a civil rights bill.

Oftentimes, filibusters are matters of mostly bluff - with one side or the other retreating after several days of manuevering. And many times, even the threat of a filibuster, especially late in the session, can result in the withdrawal of legislation.

Former Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., R-Tenn., finally gave up on his battle late last year to win a vote on a bill to allow television in the Senate, because each time it neared a vote, opponents hinted they would filibuster.

In a classic filibuster, senators not only talk and talk and talk - but they often read, sometimes from the Bible, sometimes from the Congressional Record, sometimes even from cookbooks.

A group of senators from rice-producing states waged a short filibuster last year to protest their unhappiness with the rice section of an agricultural bill by reading their favorite recipes for rice dishes.

And Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., several years ago read long passages from a book on abortions in his filibuster against anti-abortion legislation.

On Wednesday, Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., one of the leaders of the stalling effort, observed this reading tradition by reading from a 385-page independent counsel’s report on Meese.

Before 1917, there was no way to cut off debate in the Senate short of wearing out those holding the floor. In that year, an earlier version of the current cloture process was instituted.

In the last session of Congress, there were literally dozens of filibusters - sometimes progressing simultaneously - although most involved procedural delays rather than marathon speechmaking.

In fact, in the last six weeks of the last Congress, the Senate voted seven times on cloture petitions. By contrast, from 1963 to 1965 - when the Senate was tied in knots for months in debates on civil rights and voting rights - only four cloture votes took place.

The increasing use of filibusters has prompted Senate leaders of both parties to propose rules changes that would make it easier to choke off a filibuster through a variety of techniques.

However, if past history is any guide, one item almost guaranteed to generate a Senate filibuster is a proposal to change the filibuster rule.

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