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Wolfensberger: Filibusters Sometimes Serve Purposes

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., had appealed to Dirksen to put patriotism above partisanship and support cloture. Dirksen, known as “The Wizard of Ooze” for his mellifluous phrasings, responded: “I hope that the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so swift and so deep as to obscure my estimate of the national interest. ... I trust I can disenthrall myself from all bias  . . .  and see clearly and cleanly what the issue is and then render an independent judgment.”

Dirksen was pivotal not only in ending the filibuster, but also in ensuring final passage with 27 of the 33 Republican senators. Although he considered parts of the House-passed bill unconstitutional, Dirksen worked with the administration to fashion a substitute bill. As he explained his turnaround, “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” The filibuster on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while nettlesome to the impatient, did provide the time and space needed for public education, consensus-building and a compromise that made a critical difference in the outcome.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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