The Greatest Filibusters

As Sen. Joe Lieberman threatens to filibuster the Senate health-care bill, The Daily Beast looks back on obstructionism’s greatest hits. From presumed poisonings and Roquefort salad dressing recipes to public urination and the 15 hours devoted to saving a typewriter company, the strange and twisted history of the Senate filibuster.

Lauren Victoria Burke / AP Photo

Lauren Victoria Burke / AP Photo

Robert La Follette, 1908

The Republican, a leading Progressive of the era, spoke for 18 hours, setting a Senate record. He stood against a banking bill, which he found too friendly to big business. At the eleventh hour, according to historian Lewis L. Gould, a colleague brought the vegetarian La Follette a mixture of milk and eggs for sustenance. La Follette took a sip and then shouted, “Take it away, it’s drugged.” “The brew was indeed undrinkable,” Gould writes in his Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate, “but it had gone bad because of the heat of the Senate in the days before air conditioning and the long trip from the kitchen where the drink had been prepared.” The bill passed and became the basis for the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

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Huey Long, 1935

The Kingfish turned his 1935 protest of National Recovery Association appointments into an improv act. For 15 hours and 30 minutes, the Louisiana populist stopped the Senate in its tracks. He read the Constitution and explained his intricacies to his colleagues. He asked the press in attendance for ideas of what to discuss. Long provided a number of recipes for fried oysters and Roquefort salad dressing. By 4 a.m., nature called, and Long quit the floor.

Michael Rougier, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Wayne Morse, 1953

With his filibuster against the Tidelands Oil legislation, which would turn over oil-rich lands from the federal government to the state of Texas, the Oregon independent set the record with a 22 hour and 26 minute speech (although the record was broken only four years later). Morse may have learned his oratorical stamina from mentor Robert La Follette.

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Strom Thurmond, 1957

For 24 hours and 18 minutes, South Carolina’s finest stood in the well of the Senate, a water bottle strapped to his leg and lozenges on hand for his throat, protesting a civil-rights bill. Harry McPherson, who was counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, recalls leaving the Senate at 1 a.m. and returning at 7 the next morning only to find Thurmond still reading voting rights laws and reciting Anglo-Saxon histories of juries, among other things. “No one took him seriously. You had to outlast him to get over his filibuster,” McPherson said. But the scrappy Thurmond, who had children into his 70s and once wrestled a fellow senator in the Capitol halls, was a famously fit politician. A visit to the Senate steam room helped, enabling the Democrat to absorb, rather than expel, fluids throughout the day-long affair. Within two hours after Thurmond finished his filibuster, the Senate passed the bill 62 to 15.

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Robert Byrd, 1964

One of the most notorious filibusters was delivered by West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, to stall the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For 14 hours and 13 minutes, Byrd’s speech was the final act in the longest group filibuster, which lasted 57 days. “The one-man talk-a-thon staged by Sen. Byrd for 14 hours last night and this morning indicates the extent to which a mind warped with hate and prejudice will go—even in the hallowed halls of Congress,” an NAACP local president said upon its completion. The historic bill was passed 71 to 29. Byrd later said he regretted his stand against the bill.

Scott J. Ferrell, Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

Ernest F. Hollings, 1968

In September 1968, Abe Fortas’ nomination to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was filibustered by the Republicans. The event came back to haunt the GOP when the Democrats threatened to filibuster Republican judicial nominees in 2005, and the Republican Party claimed the move was without precedent. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina led the charge by reading through “long passages of James F. Byrnes’ memoirs in a thick Southern accent, while senators and staff members chatted and read,” The New York Times reported. Majority Leader Sen. Mike Mansfield couldn’t muster the votes to cut off the filibuster, and the effort to make Fortas chief justice was dropped.

Paul Schutzer, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

William Proxmire, 1981

The Wisconsin Democrat’s filibuster was aimed at the national debt and lasted 16 hours and 12 minutes. Proxmire was protesting a Reagan administration bill that raised the federal debt to $1 trillion (A little context: Last year, Congress authorized a national debt of $12 trillion.) Opponents pointed out that the senator’s speech against waste cost the federal government $60,000 itself, thanks to costs of employing Senate workers and printing fees for the Congressional Record. “Now come on, I was talking about a trillion dollars,” Proxmire said, “I was standing up doing what a senator’s supposed to do.”

Terry Ashe, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Jesse Helms, 1983

The North Carolina’s filibuster of a bill supporting a national holiday in the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. was short-lived, but cast a long shadow over the remainder of his legislative career. From the well of the Senate, Helms attacked the murdered civil-rights leader for his “radical political” views and “action-oriented Marxism.” The bill was passed 78-22, and Democratic and Republican senators alike castigated Helms for the delay and his comments. Before television cameras, Helms was asked whether King was a “Marxist-Leninist.” He replied, “But the old saying—if it has webbed feet, if it has feathers and it quacks, it's a you-know-what." "I will not dignify Helms' comments with a reply. They do not reflect credit on this body," Sen. Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that day.

Scott J. Ferrell, Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

Alfonse D'Amato, 1992

The New York Republican gave a 15-hour, 14-minute filibuster in hopes of saving a Cortland, New York, typewriter company. A Syracuse, New York, newspaper headline: “Mr. Smith-Corona Goes to Washington.” Only eight years earlier, D’Amato had delivered a 23-hour, 30-minute filibuster, hoping to stop a defense bill that would stop funding an airplane company based in Farmingdale, New York. Such acts earned D’Amato the nickname, “Senator Pothole.” “I didn't look to set records ... I look at this thing now and I see Huey Long spoke 15-16 minutes longer than me, Proxmire about an hour. I certainly could have caught those two," D’Amato said years later. D’Amato kept the 1992 filibuster going by singing “South of the Border.” The typewriter plant moved from New York to Mexico in 1992.