Accessibility links

Breaking News

Senators Aim to Avoid Delays Over Bush's Court Nominees 

I’m Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English.

JAMES STEWART: "You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked! Well I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these; and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me."

In the nineteen thirty-nine film "Mister Smith Goes to Washington," a senator faces the threat of expulsion. So he begins a filibuster. The senator, played by James Stewart, talks and talks. He talks for hours, until he is too weak to continue.

A filibuster is the use of methods such as long speeches and readings to delay legislative action. United States senators have a long tradition of filibusters. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina set the record in the Senate for the longest. In nineteen fifty-seven, he spoke against a civil rights bill. He filibustered for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes.

Currently the Senate is dealing with the issue of seven judges nominated by President Bush for federal appeals court positions. Many Democrats say the nominees are too conservative. But Democrats are a minority in the one-hundred-member Senate. A filibuster, however, would let them block action.

Republicans want to confirm the nominees. Under current rules, sixty senators would have to agree to end a filibuster. But Republicans have a majority of just fifty-five seats. So they would need Democratic support.

Another possibility is to change Senate rules so that a simple majority could vote to end filibusters. Democrats have threatened to slow all action in the Senate if the rules are changed. They say the filibuster protects minority rights.

There has even been talk of an extreme step, a so-called "nuclear option." Republicans could bar filibusters on court nominees.

President Bush has been calling for an "up-or-down" vote on his nominees -- in other words, a fair vote, a simple yes or no.

Many Americans, both liberal and conservative, say they are concerned about the idea of limiting filibusters. They wonder what effect it could have on future decisions, such as appointments to the Supreme Court.

Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says both parties have increasingly used filibusters on judicial nominees.

The possibility of a bitter fight in the coming days has led a number of moderate senators to seek a compromise.

So, why the name "filibuster"? We looked in the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage online dictionaries. A filibuster was someone involved in private military actions in foreign countries -- also known as a pirate. In Dutch the term for pirate meant freebooter. And a freebooter became a "filibustero" in Spanish. So when senators took control of the Senate floor, that was seen as acting like a filibuster.

IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English, was written by Jerilyn Watson. Our reports are online at I’m Steve Ember.


Sound from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is from