How does a filibuster work?

The Democrats have decided to instigate a filibuster in the Senate. I don’t really know how one works or what the rules are. All I have are vague recollections of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

A Filibuster is the term used for an extended debate in the Senate which has the effect of preventing a vote. Senate rules contain no motion to force a vote. A vote occurs only once debate ends.

Basically the filibustee speaks on a variety of topics ad nauseum so as not to give up the floor. Hoping in the process that maybe everyone will go away or give up.

I, of course, should have cited my soure: http://www.c-span.org/guide/congress/glossary/filibust.htm

The Senate bills itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body, largely because of its tradition of unlimited debate. A senator may speak for as long as he or she wants, on any topic that he or she wants, as long as the senator holds the floor continuously–that is, he or she cannot leave the chamber, or take his or her seat, or pause (although the filibustering senator can manage a break by making certain motions, such as a quorum call, without relinquishing the floor). A filibuster takes maximum advantage of that tradition. For example, when southern senators opposed civil-rights legislation in the 1950s, they sometimes spoke around the clock. The filibuster prevents a vote on the question before the Senate, and blocks any other business from coming forward, so that no legislation can pass while a filibuster is underway. The filibuster usually continues until the other side, the senators who support the question being filibustered, agrees to a compromise or delay, or drops the matter in order to break the logjam.

Or cloture is invoked. Debate can come to an end if 60% of the senators agree to end it. This is not done very often, though.

In the civil rights days, it required a 2/3rds majority to invoke cloture, which was even harder to get.

As I understand from Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate about Lyndon Johnson’s years in the Senate, even the potential threat that a filibuster might be ended with cloture can be gotten around. Cloture can only be invoked upon a bill that is currently under debate on the Senate floor. Now, for a bill to make it to the floor, it has to be voted off the Senate calendar. However, this vote can also be filibustered, and since cloture cannot be invoked upon it (it’s not on the Senate floor yet), this effectively prevents such a bill from ever being debated.

(Senate experts, did I get that right?)