Understanding Filibusters in Congress

Filibusters are made possible in part due to Senate rules providing that when a senator is recognized to speak regarding a pending measure there are few limitations. Debate is typically unlimited regarding pending measures. Once a senator is recognized, she can yield to another senator for the purpose of a question, but the senator that has been recognized still controls the floor. When a senator continues to speak for an extended period of time it is known as a filibuster.

Empty Coal Train thru Thurmond, WV
Creative Commons License photo credit: jpmueller99

Throughout the history of America, there have been some notable instances in which extended filibusters occurred in the Senate. The longest filibuster to date is credited to Strom Thurmond, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes on the civil rights bill in 1957. Wayne Morse spoke for 22 hours and 26 minutes on the Tidelands oil bill in 1953. William Proxmire actually held the floor for more than 25 hours in 1961; however, he yielded the floor to other senators for several hours during that time period.


The modern approach to filibusters is often referred to as the tag-team approach. In this approach a senator will speak for a period of time and then yield to another senator. In a situation in which several senators participate in an extended period of debate it can actually take some time for the Senate to recognize that a filibuster is being conducted. As a result, the mere threat of a filibuster carries significant weight in the Senate.

Debate within the Senate is limited only under certain situations. These situations include when:

  • Cloture is invoked
  • Debate is limited by unanimous consent
  • The Senate operates under a unanimous consent time agreement
  • The Senate considers a motion to table
  • The Senate considers a measure governed by a rule-making statute

Each senator is prohibited from speaking more than twice on the same subject on the same legislative day under Senate rules. Due to the fact that each amendment is considered to be a different subject, the two-speech rule is actually not a practical limit on debate.

Also seeFilibuster / Unlimited Debate (CongressionalGlossary.com)

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