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August 14, 1962
Turning Point

Where were you during the summer of 1962? The Senate was in Washington, D.C., in session—all summer long. The crowded legislative agenda of 1962 included a Kennedy administration proposal to create the Communications Satellite Corporation. Would Congress be willing to entrust vital public policy decisions to such a semi-private corporation? Ten Democratic senators—so-called “economic liberals”—answered with a resounding "No!"

Senate floor debate on the COMSAT bill began in mid-June and extended intermittently into August. It offered an inviting forum for Senator Wayne Morse, the maverick Oregon Democrat who, in 1953, had set a record for the longest one-person filibuster in Senate history. By the fifth day of his campaign against the COMSAT bill, Morse discovered that his party’s leader, Mike Mansfield, was quietly planning to resort to a rarely used legislative device—the cloture motion. Despite Mansfield’s best efforts to placate Morse, the angry senator shouted on the floor, "I do not believe the majority leader!”" Republican Leader Everett Dirksen rushed to Mansfield’s defense, booming, "I must invoke the rule with respect to indecorous language." Mansfield assured everyone that he needed no protection and invited the Senate to draw its own conclusions about his veracity.

Behind the scenes, the COMSAT bill’s supporters struggled to line up the 67 votes then needed to cut off debate. They faced an uphill battle. Since the addition of the cloture provision to Senate rules 45 years earlier, the Senate had successfully invoked it on only four occasions—the most recent time being 1927.

Finally, on August 14, 1962, with help from the Senate’s western-state COMSAT supporters, many of whom had been philosophically opposed to cloture, the Senate narrowly cut off debate. This outcome was important for Senate operations for two reasons. First, it was becoming acceptable for senators other than those from the South—such as Morse and his nine colleagues—to use the filibuster against legislation other than civil rights bills. Moderates and liberals, who traditionally sought to reduce the existing two-thirds’ cloture requirement and who considered the filibuster as tainted by its lethal use against civil rights, found themselves starting to embrace extended-debate tactics that they had previously condemned their southern colleagues for using. The COMSAT debate-ending vote was important, also, because it heralded reforms that made cloture more attainable—eventually reducing the number of votes needed to 60. In all of 1964, the Senate bothered to conduct just two cloture votes.


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