Why Sen. Bernie Sanders can single-handedly filibuster tax cuts for rich


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Sen. Bernie Sanders became a sensation on cable television and new media outposts like Twitter with his filibuster Friday of a proposal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans.

Twitter lit up with highlights from Sanders’ (an Independent from Vermont) prolonged and sometimes angry speech, decrying an agreement between President Obama and Republicans to allow the breaks even for millionaires, while he said many of his constituents are going hungry.


The filibuster, from a Dutch word meaning “pirate,” has a long and not so proud history in the U.S. Senate. Those in the majority have tried for more than two centuries to make it go away. They have failed.

Vice President Aaron Burr paved the way for the filibuster with a seemingly innocuous move in 1805 to simplify the Senate’s rules. He argued that the Senate debate guidelines were too complex and that one rule, allowing “previous question” motions, should be stricken.

The previous question rule had allowed lawmakers to end debate and call for a vote. But the Senate went along with Burr and dumped the rule. It wasn’t until more than three decades later, in 1837, that a filibuster stalled Senate action for the first time.

The filibuster became more common as Senate expanded and as issues, such as slavery, became more contentious.

The Senate several times over the decades debated whether to end the practice and free the way for legislation. It took a crisis, in 1917, for a compromise to be hatched. In the spring of that year, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to arm merchant ships for World War I. Senate Republicans blocked him.

Wilson and Democrats framed reform as a national security issue and won approval of Rule 22, which provided that a vote by two-thirds of the Senate could force an end to debate.


Still, senators from the South made liberal use of filibusters to block civil rights legislation. That included stalling anti-lynching legislation, according to the Senate website, until cloture was invoked after a 57-day filibuster against the Civil Right Act of 1964.

It was not until 1975 that the Senate reduced the number of votes required to shut off debate from two-thirds to three-fifths. That means 60 votes to end debate with the current complement of 100 senators.

Sanders finally broke off his prolonged performance just before 7 p.m. Eastern time Friday, some 8 1/2 hours after he started. The extended speech was technically not a filibuster since it did not delay a vote or other business.

But there Sanders stood, protesting a vote on the tax measure that could come as early as Monday. He had the Senate floor microphone all to himself (with a brief bit of assistance from Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana), with only a staffer and a bare minimum of other Senate personnel in attendance.

He talked about the ‘insanity’ of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. He savaged the accompanying idea of cutting the estate tax--which he said would expand the national debt by $1 trillion over 10 years.

With a lot of time to fill, the 69-year-old senator with the giant spectacles also talked about the weather, the delights of his native Vermont (inviting outsiders to come ski at Stowe), his opposition to the Comcast-NBC merger and scads of other things.

Sanders paused occasionally for a sip of water or to confer for a moment with his staff. But he kept going. By days end Friday he had the top TWO trending items on Twitter and his own hashtag, #filibernie, highlighting Twitter posts about his exploits. Websites like had popped up to celebrate his fete. Pollsters purportedly were ready to measure the lefty-legislators appeal as a possible president candidate.

It’s anybody’s guess whether the filibernie could resume next week, but his persistence Friday heartened many liberals and conjured up a raft of Senate history.

--James Rainey