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Cokie Roberts Answers Listener Questions On The Filibuster

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congressional Democrats don't have a lot of power these days, which has them thinking about the legislative last-chance known as the filibuster, something they could use against President Trump's pick for Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. We heard from many of you wondering how the filibuster works, so we put your questions to our friend Cokie Roberts.

Hi, there.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: Nice to talk to you again, too. Let's kick it off with our first question.

DOUG BRUST: This is Doug Brust from Fort Myers, Fla. Cokie, what is a filibuster? What is its origin and history, and how is it employed as a political strategy? Thanks.

ROBERTS: Well, a filibuster is basically just taking a measure to death. And it has been around since the beginning. In fact, it was in both houses of Congress at the very beginning - unlimited debate on anything. In fact, in the House of Representatives during a debate on the War of 1812, the way they stopped somebody from speaking was to throw a spittoon. And then the person was so shocked, he stopped talking. They called a vote. And...

MARTIN: (Laughter) I would say.

ROBERTS: But the House got so big, it now has very extensive rules that are very strict. The Senate - not so much. What happens in the Senate is that people can keep talking. They have finally put in rules that said to cut off debate, it took two-thirds of the vote of the Senate. Then it was changed to three-fifths of the vote of the Senate. So it takes 60 votes to cut off debate. And instead of just talking a bill to death now, what senators do is say that they plan to filibuster a measure. So then it takes 60 votes to proceed to debate on just about everything except presidential appointments other than the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: OK. Let's go to our next question here.

KEVIN RASMUSSEN: Aloha, Cokie. This is Kevin Rasmussen in Honolulu, Hawaii. Is there anything procedural that Democrats can do once hearings are convened for Gorsuch to force a retroactive hearing for Garland, since that nomination was never advised nor consented to by the Senate? Mahalo.

ROBERTS: Mahalo (laughter).

MARTIN: Mahalo.

ROBERTS: No, the Garland nomination officially died when the new Congress convened. And the judge has, in fact, put himself back on the calendar for the D.C. Circuit Court. In that case, the Republicans just kept the nomination out of hearings and off the floor rather than filibuster. In fact, the only time that there has been a filibuster against a Supreme Court appointee was for Abe Fortas as chief justice at the end of Johnson's term. Opponents of that appointment tried to call their tactics something else, but it definitely was a filibuster.

MARTIN: All right - and our last question. This one came in the form of an email from Patty in Wisconsin. She asks, what good are rules if the majority changes them whenever it suits them, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, that's a very good question. Much in the Senate has to be done by unanimous consent because the rules are so malleable. There's no cut and dried formula as there is in the House. That being the case, you don't want to totally infuriate the other side if possible. And anyone who's been there for any length of time knows that the rules you chafe against one day protect you the next.

For instance, the filibuster was used by opponents of civil rights throughout the '50s and '60s. In fact, the longest filibuster was Strom Thurman in 1957, more than 24 hours. And then the filibuster was used by liberals to oppose things like attempts to promote school prayer or restrict busing for integration. And so you discover that what works for one side one day works for the other side another. And one of those liberals who used it, Lowell Weicker - a Republican from Connecticut, now an independent - continues to argue strongly for the filibuster, saying sometimes the minority has to use it to preserve some very important principles.

MARTIN: Giving us the history of the filibuster, commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She joins us Wednesdays to answer your questions about how Washington and politics work. You can tweet us your questions @morningedition with the hashtag #AskCokie. Or you can email your questions to us - askcokie@npr.org.

Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.