Affordable Care Act / Healthcare / Politics / U.S. Senate

Cruz Control: Long Senate Speeches and How a Non-Filibuster Can Still Wield Power

While Senator Ted Cruz’s September 24 speech condemning the Affordable Care Act was not technically a filibuster, the length of time he spent talking without yielding the floor is notable in the history of speeches delivered in the Senate.

Filibusters are intended to delay or prevent voting on a piece of legislation. A senator may speak for as long as he or she wishes on any topic unless cloture is invoked by a three-fifths vote. For preparation, Cruz noted that he took advice from Senator Rand Paul by deciding to wear comfortable shoes instead of his signature “argument boots.”

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The longest individual filibuster in Senate history occurred when Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, clocking in at 24 hours and 18 minutes. While this is perhaps the most infamous moment of his historically long Senate tenure, it should be noted that many other senators combined for 57 days of filibustering from March 26 until June 19, the date of the bill’s passage. The longest-serving senator, Robert Byrd, would later spend 14 hours and 13 minutes filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As Cruz demonstrated with his reading of bedtime stories to his children, the content of what a senator says does not have to be relevant to the topic at hand. Alfonse D’Amato spoke for 23 hours and 30 minutes in protest of a Defense Authorization Act amendment in 1986, at one point reading from the D.C. phone book.  In 1992, he filibustered again, this time singing “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” in protest of a Revenue Act amendment that would have led to the loss of 750 jobs in his home state of New York.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained about Cruz’s tactics, Reid himself spoke for 8 hours and 30 minutes in 2003 on the right to filibuster judicial nominees. Bernie Sanders, another current senator, spent 8 hours and 37 minutes speaking out against the extension of the Bush-era tax rates within the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010; though like Cruz’s speech, it was not a filibuster. Earlier this year, Rand Paul filibustered the confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA for 12 hours and 52 minutes, focusing heavily on the potential for drone strikes to be carried out against U.S. citizens on American soil.

Critics of the filibuster have called for reform. A long-proposed tactic is the potential use of a “nuclear option,” which would require only a simple majority to invoke cloture instead of the three-fifths vote mandated by Senate rules. In January, both parties were able to negotiate a deal that preserved the sixty-vote requirement for stopping a filibuster, but also reduced the ability for small groups of senators to block or delay popular bills.  The votes on these rule changes passed with strong bipartisan support, 78 to 16 and 86 to 9.

While its effectiveness can vary, a filibuster (or a lengthy, well-timed speech) remains a potentially persuasive tool for senators to use to emphasize their messages. Ted Cruz did not prevent the Senate from voting on and passing its continuing resolution, but his name is still in the news every day and his face continues to be prominently featured on television and online. While October 1 marked the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare exchanges, his domination of national headlines has certainly increased attention to criticisms of the ACA at a crucial time during the Obama administration’s enrollment promotion efforts. Cruz’s goal of repealing the ACA stands little chance of becoming reality, but the impact of his marathon Senate speech is undeniable.

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