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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Senator Joe Lieberman talks with reporters after a Democratic policy luncheon in Washington

While Democrats are close to a nearly unassailable 60-seat majority in the U.S. Senate, their numbers can't guarantee the easy passage of the controversial $829 billion health care–reform bill that Senate majority leader Harry Reid plans to move to the floor in the coming weeks. Republicans have one major weapon left: the filibuster. "If the bill remains what it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion before final passage," said Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent. "Therefore I will try to stop the passage of the bill."

The filibuster, long seen by its proponents as a necessary check on power and by its critics as a frustrating waste of time, has been around since the mid-19th century. A filibuster simply allows the minority political party to choose to endlessly debate a bill, stalling — and sometimes preventing — an actual vote. The word comes from the Dutch term vrijbuiter (pirate), in addition to the Spanish word filibustero (freebooting). The origins of filibuster use trace back to ancient Rome, and the practice has been common in several other countries including England and Australia. In the U.S., the tactic became known as a label for a Senator who held his colleagues hostage by overtalking legislation. Originally, both the Senate and the House of Representatives had a rule called the Previous Question Motion, where a simple majority ended debate — a rule the House has kept. But the Senate dropped this provision in 1806, leaving open the potential for a filibuster.

The first filibuster in U.S. Senate history began on March 5, 1841, over the issue of the firing of Senate printers, and lasted six days. Ever since, politicians have loved filibusters or hated them — depending which side of the fight they were on. Proponents argue the filibuster protects the right to free speech and prevents the Senate majority from steamrolling the minority, thus ensuring that critical legislation gets a sufficient airing before being pushed through. Others contend the practice has gotten out of hand, leaving bills gridlocked in an oft-feuding Senate and stalling important votes for purely partisan gain. Peter Fenn, GOP consultant and former Senate aide, called filibusters the "tyranny of the minority."

They're also grand political theater. Jimmy Stewart's one-man filibuster forms the climax of Frank Capra's 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A reporter in the movie heralded them as "democracy's finest show ... the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form." Four years earlier, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long read the Constitution, plays of Shakespeare and even recipes for oyster dishes for 15 hours to prevent passage of a bill that would have given his political enemies New Deal jobs. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay became frustrated in 1841 when his banking bill was filibustered for 14 days. The longest uninterrupted filibuster on record belongs to South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who stopped a vote on a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes. A filibuster is often an effort of several Senators, but can also be done by a single Senator.

The only way to stop one is by invoking cloture — which forces a vote to take place. Cloture, adopted in 1917, used to require two-thirds of the Senate to agree to stop the talking. But with a two-thirds vote difficult to obtain (just four out of 23 cloture movements were successful between 1919 and 1960), the Senate changed the rule in 1975 to require just three-fifths' approval.

The filibuster has become an increasingly common tool: the 19th century saw fewer than two dozen filibusters enacted. By the Carter Administration, that figure was up to 20 per year. The threat of a filibuster has almost become a filibuster itself, stunting debate before it even begins.

Considering how controversial they've been, it's not surprising that politicians tend to flip-flop on filibuster use. In 1994 Senator Lieberman, then a Democrat, called the filibuster "an obstacle to accomplishment" and "a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today." Today Lieberman, now an independent, backs Republicans on health care reform and plans to filibuster the bill when it makes it to the Senate floor. Just goes to show everyone likes the filibuster when it's their time to use it.