WASHINGTON -- From Jimmy Stewart's fictional all-night talkathon to real-life dramas over World War I and civil rights, the Senate filibuster has played a notable, sometimes reviled role in the nation's history. But now, the slow-moving, deliberative chamber has dialed it back, although modestly.
Filibusters are procedural delays that outnumbered lawmakers use to try to kill bills and nominations. But they seldom look like the speech delivered by the exhausted, devoted senator portrayed by Stewart in the film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In fact, the Senate currently has more filibusters than ever. But you'd hardly know it by watching the chamber on C-SPAN television.
These days, lawmakers intent on killing a bill simply inform majority Democrats that to pass the measure, they will need yes votes from 60 of the 100 senators. With Democrats controlling just 55 votes, nothing can pass that threshold without at least some Republican support.
That has brought the Senate virtually to a standstill on a list of sweeping legislation, from tax hikes on the wealthy to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting gridlock helped inspire recession-weary Americans to slap the last Congress with some of the lowest approval ratings in history.
The Senate late Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan agreement to limit use of filibusters when the chamber begins debating a bill and when it wants to try writing compromise legislation with the House. It also will speed approval of some nominations by reducing the amount of debate allowed after the Senate has voted to end a filibuster.
But the pact will still leave the minority party other opportunities on every bill to force majorities to get 60 votes to prevail. Still, the changes will clear the way for other legislation, such as a $50.5 billion emergency relief measure for Superstorm Sandy victims that the Senate plans to approve Monday.
Defenders of filibusters say the enormous power it gives to the minority party is what differentiates the Senate from the House, where rules give almost absolute power to the majority party when it remains united.
Opponents say the practice makes a mockery of the concept of majority rule. Democrats say today's Republicans use the tactic far too often, while GOP senators insist that they employ it so frequently because today's Democratic leaders block them from offering amendments.
Originally, there were no rules that could stop senators from debating as long as they wanted. But in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson persuaded senators to approve a rule stopping such delays with a two-thirds vote. Two years later, it was used for the first time, when senators used cloture to end delaying tactics holding up approval of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
In 1957, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, set a record speaking 24 hours, 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act. Despite his effort, which included reading every state's election laws, the bill eventually became law.
In 1975, the number of votes needed to end filibusters was changed to a three-fifths majority. That's 60 votes today.
The longest filibuster on record stretched over 57 days, as Southerners made an unsuccessfully bid to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over time, the maneuver has been used on dozens of issues including efforts to abolish the Electoral College, block a 1974 genocide treaty, grant pardons to Vietnam War draft evaders and to add an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution.