For most of this century, Senate filibuster fights were rare and dramatic: bleary-eyed senators reading recipe books through the night, weary colleagues sleeping on cots and an occasional historic achievement, such as the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Today, these spectacles have faded into history, and filibusters--along with votes to avert or limit them--are now almost as routine as the Senate's opening prayer. They have become part of the power game played by both parties to force or block votes, drum up public support and make opponents look like spoilers.
The result is often paralysis and an escalation of the partisan rancor that gives rise to filibuster struggles in the first place.
"It almost becomes tit for tat," said Sarah Binder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Republicans blocked Democratic initiatives in the early 1990s, she noted, and Democrats reciprocated after the GOP took control in 1995.
But as Binder and others have noted, cloture votes--the parliamentary process under which 60 senators can vote to limit debate and block unrelated amendments--are no longer used just to cut off filibusters.
With increasing frequency, minority Democrats try to shoehorn their legislative priorities into the Republican majority's bills, and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) reacts by seeking cloture before Democrats can offer amendments. With their 45 votes, Democrats usually can block cloture: They may not be able to pass their own proposals but they can embarrass Republicans with votes that hurt at election time.
"When we know they're going to offer amendments on everything in the world unrelated to the bill itself, what option do I have?" Lott said last week when asked why he tries to block Democratic amendments with cloture votes.
Democrats say Lott has one obvious option: a simple up-or-down vote on their proposals.
Last week alone, there were three votes aimed at limiting debate or curbing amendments, involving issues ranging from bankruptcy laws, the minimum wage and gun control to judicial nominations and royalties for oil and gas taken from federal lands. Only the royalty struggle resulted in passage of legislation. The two others ended in deadlock.
More filibuster struggles are virtually certain before Congress adjourns for the year. The biggest is likely to arise out of next month's showdown over campaign finance legislation, which is supported by a majority of senators but not 60.
Even with several weeks to go, the Senate is well on its way to a new record for cloture votes. There have been 29 such votes so far this year, most of which failed.
The previous record was 29 cloture votes in 1996 and 1998, according to congressional statistics. As recently as the late 1970s, there were only a handful of such votes. There were years in the 1950s and 1960s when there are no cloture votes at all.
So why not scrap the filibuster? Forget it. The Senate's cherished tradition as a forum for untrammeled debate is one reason it won't happen. Another is the fact that the filibuster is the minority party's most powerful weapon and the majority party is always just one election away from being the minority.
"I might not much like it now, but someday I might like it more," Lott observed.
REVENGE? Democrats were fuming last week when a provision backed by Republican-turned-Democrat Rep. Michael P. Forbes (N.Y.) disappeared from the energy and water appropriations conference report. In the past, Forbes inserted language shutting down a reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was leaking radioactive material into Long Island's water. After Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (Ind.), top Democrat on the energy-water subcommittee, called the deletion a "significant problem" that was "very pertinent to a member of the subcommittee," meaning Forbes, Republicans quickly moved to reinstate the provision.
THE WEEK AHEAD: With the fiscal year ending Thursday, both chambers will be struggling to pass spending bills and, because many will not be enacted in time, they also will vote on a continuing resolution to keep the government running at current spending levels until the bills are passed. The House will deal with crop insurance and, on Thursday, the Christian Coalition's annual lobby day, it will take up the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" to make it a crime to injure a fetus during the commission of a federal offense.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.