Politico says: Senate filibusters aren't what they used to be

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If you’ve been hoping to see Sen. Joe Lieberman star in a sequel to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” this holiday season, you can put away the microwave popcorn.

Fury over the Connecticut senator’s announcement that he might join Republicans to filibuster a vote on the Senate health care bill has Democrats clamoring for Majority Leader Harry Reid to grab his teddy bear and let ’em talk all night.

But the public isn’t likely to see Lieberman offer a dramatic reading of the New Haven telephone book any time soon — nor catch Democrats cat-napping on the Senate floor to keep the session going round the clock.

Filibusters are far more common than most realize, but they don’t look much like Jimmy Stewart vehicles anymore, said Gregory Wawro, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of “Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the United States Senate.”

“There are many more of them than there were prior to the 1970s,” he said. “They’re used for about everything of any significance these days.”

But instead of the spectacular verbal endurance tests for which Louisiana Democratic Sen. Huey Long was famous, senators now use “silent filibusters,” in which the opposition announces its intent to filibuster a bill, thereby forcing the party in power to assemble a 60-40 supermajority in order to move forward — even if no one is actually standing up on the floor to stop them.

“It used to be, the only way to stop anything was that: the all-night, all-day, hold-the-floor filibuster,” said one Republican leadership aide. “Whereas now, you need to produce 41. If you can get 41 senators, you can stop it.”

The aide acknowledged that an old-school filibuster isn’t likely this time around but also cautioned not to “rule anything out.” He said GOP members are “keyed up” for a national debate, which he predicts will last “for weeks and weeks.” And while it may not take quite that long, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is already demanding that the entire 2,074-page Senate health care bill be read on the floor before a vote.

But that’s a pause and a political point, not an actual filibuster.

The last true old-school filibuster in the Senate is considered to have been conducted in 1986 by then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican from New York who was known as “Sen. Pothole” for his vaunted constituent-services operation. D’Amato spoke for 15 hours and 14 minutes in a failed effort to amend a tax bill to aid a struggling typewriter factory in Cortland, N.Y.

Since then, there have been plenty of silent filibusters, punctuated with periodic threats to haul out the cots, and even an all-night debate in 2007 staged to try to end a Republican filibuster over a bill on withdrawal from Iraq. Senators have also held the floor at length in protest or used filibuster-style techniques to slow down the proceedings...

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