Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Fifty years ago the Senate had begun what was to become a marathon session. Senate Leader, Lyndon Johnson had begun an attempt to push through civil rights legislation. On February 15th he used a procedural device aimed to get the measures passed quickly (in Senate terms). Instead of introducing a Senate Bill he took opponents by surprise by a series of moves -

* he asked for, and received unanimous consent to proceed to consideration of a House passed bill, H.R. 8315. This was a minor, non-controversial bill authorizing the Army to use particular offices on a specific base for new purposes. No one objected.

* during consideration of the bill, he invited Senators to propose amendments which would introduce civil rights provisions. This meant that what became a civil rights bill would avoid being referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where opponents could keep it tied up. Also, when it was returned to the House - as 'merely' Senate amendments, it wouldn't need a rule granted by the southern controlled Rules Committee.

To defeat the anticipated filibuster by the hardcore of less than 20 southern Senators, Johnson announced that the Senate would go into continuous (24 hour a day) session from 29th February. This would have tested the stamina and resolve of those that would try to filibuster. Senator Talmadge came up with a way to turn the tables. The hardcore 18 were arranged into "platoons" of 6 senators - each platoon was responsible for continuing the filibuster for a day (with two days 'off'). On the day they were covering a 'squad' of 2 would be responsible for 8 hours. Quorum calls were regularly made - this forced the majority to have at least 49 Senators available at all times. Otherwise, the senate would be adjourned - and those sustaining the filibuster would get a rest - and a new 'legislative day' would begin. Senators were only allowed 2 speeches per legislative day - so this would have meant that the filibuster could be sustained.

An aide to Senator Paul Douglas explained "A Senator who was filibustering didn't have to show except every third day and didn't have to speak except every sixth day. The people who were trying to break the filibuster hads to be around...at all times, to answer the quorum calls...The effect of it was to wear out the people who were trying to break the filibuster, rather than to wear out the people who were filibustering"

Floyd Riddick, in a journal article entitled "The Eighty-Sixth Congress: Second Session" which appeared in the Western Political quarterly in 1961 revealed that -

"The "around the clock" session ran from February 29th through March 8th - a nine day continuous session lasting 157 hours and 25 minutes, broken only by a 15 minute recess on March 2 and a recess over Sunday March 6 - giving a 42.5 hour respite. The longest unbroken period took 82 hours and 2 minutes, from March 2 to March 5, during which time there were 13 roll call votes and 51 quorum calls."

Johnson finally called off the continuous session when a cloture petition was filed. It failed 53-42. A watered down administration bill (rather than Johnson's bill) was referred to the Judiciary
Committee. It made it into law - but "in the end the bill satified no one completely".