There is a lot of attention being focused on the health care reform debate in America at the moment and many commentators do not understand why a bill has not yet been enacted into law. After all, President Obama has a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well. So the simple question is, “Why can’t he drive his health care reform legislation through?”
Naturally, the answer is more complicated, but it basically boils down to the right of extended debate in the Senate, which allows any Senator to speak on any matter for as long as he or she wishes. This right to extended debate can lead to filibusters.
The tradition of the Senate is one of open and unlimited debate. The filibuster, from a Dutch word meaning pirate, is derived from this tradition and first came into use in the 1850s when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor to prevent action on a bill. Today, filibuster is used to describe any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a matter by debating it at length, by offering procedural motions, or by any other obstructive or delaying actions. The record for the longest individual speech is held by former Senator J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
To deal with filibusters, the Senate adopted a rule that allows the Senate to end a debate with a procedural vote that requires 60 votes — a tactic known as cloture. Filibusters are here to stay though, because the possibility of filibusters encourages consensus in the Senate.