Texplainer: What Are the Rules of a Filibuster?

Closeup of State Sen. Wendy Davis' shoes as she begins a filibuster of SB 5 on June 25, 2013.
Closeup of State Sen. Wendy Davis' shoes as she begins a filibuster of SB 5 on June 25, 2013.

Hey, Texplainer: How does a filibuster work?

With the special session closing at midnight Wednesday, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is engaged in a filibuster attempt to kill abortion legislation she and other Democrats oppose.

Delay tactics like the filibuster and "chubbing" often emerge near the end of legislative sessions to block the passage or progress of a bill.

The filibuster is an extended discussion of a bill by an individual, and it is permitted only in the Senate. It is distinct from chubbing, which refers to the practice of extending debate on individual bills that can occur in both the House and Senate.

During a filibuster, a senator is limited to topics relevant to the bill being discussed and cannot eat, drink or use the restroom during the speech. The rules also prohibit sitting or leaning on a desk or chair under any circumstances when the senator has the floor and is speaking on the bill or resolution.

Filibusters end either when the senator voluntarily yields the floor or after three violations of the rules for decorum and debate. After the third violation, the Senate can vote on a point of order, which if sustained would force the senator to yield the floor, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas website.

The Senate might be able to force a vote on Senate Bill 5, the abortion restriction measure Davis is seeking to kill, if she yields the floor. That means that if she hopes to delay action on SB 5 — for now, anyway — Davis must speak continuously until midnight, when the session ends.

Filibustering senators are allowed to pause to take questions while on the floor. If someone asks Davis a question, it gives her a chance to stop speaking.

If Davis succeeds in filibustering past the midnight deadline, she will have spoken continuously for almost 13 hours. 

The longest state and national record for a filibuster clocks in at 43 hours, by former Democratic Texas state Sen. Bill Meier.

Meier filibustered for almost two days against a provision in Senate Bill 1275, “which would have prevented public inspection of the records of the Industrial Accident Board,” according to the Legislative Reference Library website.

During Meier’s filibuster, the rules on eating and drinking were considerably more relaxed.

“I had some light things like some lemon slices,” Meier said in an interview earlier this year. “Every now and then I would try to get a little bitty piece of Hershey bar to stick into my mouth and keep talking. That’s about all I had to eat.”

Lemons were also a coping mechanism in 1972 for former state Sen. Mike McKool, who performed the second-longest filibuster in state history. McKool’s filibuster set the record at the time for the longest state filibuster at 42 hours and 33 minutes.

Previous senators who have conducted long filibusters have resorted to special equipment to relieve themselves without leaving the floor. A spokesman for Davis has declined to say whether or how she was equipped on Tuesday.

Davis previously filibustered a bill in 2011, though she only spoke for an hour and 18 minutes — the Senate delayed her speech to minimize the length of time she spent on the floor.

Bottom line: Filibusters require the senator to speak continuously on the floor without food, drink or physical support. They usually occur at the end of a legislative session to delay action on a bill.

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