A windy old play built around that time-honored theme, the filibuster, reopened in the Senate yesterday. But all the actors were in the wrong places.
The spectacle was as dull as ever. The plot has changed little over the decades. Only the accents were different.
This time northerners played all the old southern parts, southerners the northern parts. Before the day ended, the southerners borrowed an old northern subplot, a motion for cloture, in an attempt to bring down the curtain. A vote is scheduled Friday.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), instigator of the filibuster, played the northern leading role, just as he had before Congress went home for the Fourth of July recess. He was supported by an unlikely cast of liberals and moderates from northern states, attempting to turn the tables on the South.
The northerners used all the old southern lines. They talked about little other than the Constitution and the founding fathers. "I'm a conservative on the Constitution," Weicker declared in one oratorical flurry. "And I'm arguing a conservative position."
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), caught up in his own rhetoric, went further. Long arms waving dramatically, he read Latin inscriptions off the Senate walls: Novis Ordo Seclorum, E Pluribus Unum and Annuit Coeptis. The legislation at hand, he said was "the most extraordinary meanspirited" ever to come before the august body.
One almost expected to hear the founding fathers quake in their graves. But scarcely any senators were present to hear him.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) played the frustrating southern lead. Such southern stalwarts as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had important supporting parts but offered new lines.
Weicker sensed that they were all a little uneasy. "All that's happened is they are in the driver's seat now," he said later. "They are fighting the same battle so many of us of a more moderate persuasion fought so many years."
Johnston and Helms are authors of an amendment to a Justice Department appropriation bill that would prohibit federal courts from ordering children to be bused for purposes of racial integration more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes.
The measure has a retroactive provision that could apply to old busing cases and also would prevent Justice from suing on behalf of minorities to seek court-ordered busing.
Civil rights groups are enraged over the amendment. "We think the amendment is dangerous, destructive and unconstitutional," said William Taylor, a lawyer for the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. "If successful, it could open the floodgates to a series of other bills."
"It is really an attack on the entire constitutional system of this country," said John Shattuck, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
For decades, civil rights groups fought use of the filibuster to thwart civil rights legislation. Now they find themselves supporting Weicker's filibuster.
Yesterday's session will not rank high in the history of filibustering. It lasted only four hours -- nothing compared to the day in 1935 when Sen. Huey P. (Kingfish) Long (D-La.) went on for 15 hours with everything from commentary on the Constitution to recipes for southern "pot likker," turnip greens and corn bread.
Johnston, who represents the Kingfish's state, was straightforward in his presentation. He said he supports racial integration but added, "Forced busing has not worked to achieve integration. It has worked to cause white flight" from school systems.
Ironically, Johnston said the cloture motion, offered by Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and 15 other senators, will kill his amendment. If the motion is approved by three-fifths of the Senate, he said that his amendment would become a "nongermane one" and that no vote would be allowed on it.
Weicker said he would be disappointed with such "a procedural victory." He pledged to continue opposing a related Helms amendment, preventing the Justice Department from filing busing-related suits, in a "post-cloture mode" similar to the filibuster.