A modern Senate filibuster - or talking a bill to death - usually isn't as dramatic as the famous one in the old movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
But just as Jimmy Stewart staged a filibuster in it to fight for a hopeless cause and win, retiring Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, is ending his Senate career threatening the mother of all filibusters to win a war he has fought for 25 years.He simply wants to complete the Central Utah Project - a series of dams and aqueducts to bring water from eastern Utah to the growing Wasatch Front - for which he fought as a Salt Lake water commissioner and mayor and as a senator.
The often-delayed, $3 billion CUP has bumped into its federal debt limit. So irrigation, environmental and recreational portions of it will not be completed - or Ute tribe water rights issues solved - unless that spending cap is increased by $922 million.
A compromise bill to do that was hammered out three years ago and has not been considered controversial since. But California lawmakers tied it to a huge water projects bill as a "hostage" to force Congress to address issues important to them.
That included holding up the CUP bill two years until Congress decided to reform the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which was finally done much at the urging of Garn in hopes of freeing the CUP. Now, the CUP is being held up until water redistribution formulas can be worked out for California's Central Valley Project.
With Congress expected to adjourn in two to three weeks and the CUP still held hostage, Garn hit his frustration limit last week and pulled out his last-ditch weapon - the threat of a filibuster.
He announced to colleagues he would filibuster to death all energy and natural resources bills that reach the Senate floor until the CUP bill is passed.
Rules in the Senate, unlike the House, allow members to talk as long as they want on any given issue. So members can, if they choose, talk a bill to death. The only way to stop such a filibuster is with a three-fifths "cloture" vote, which can be held only after a petition calling for it has been filed for three days.
At the end of a session when dozens of bills are flying through both chambers quickly and three days often are not available for a cloture petition, the mere threat of a filibuster - or "placing a hold" on a bill - is often enough to kill it.
The Senate doesn't often force a senator to actually filibuster the bill, it just moves on to something else that doesn't have a hold on it - and that is essentially what a modern filibuster is. But Garn says he is perfectly willing to also stage an old-fashioned, Stewart-style filibuster if actually required to win on the CUP.
Garn's action blocks bills ranging from settling whether to protect old-growth forests for the spotted owl to reforming national parks concessions, creating or expanding several national monuments and protecting numerous rivers. He hopes their sponsors will pressure Californians to release the CUP so Garn will release the rest.
Such action comes with a cost. Mainly, other members will likely filibuster Garn's other bills.