Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-IL) met with Clarence Mitchell, chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who wanted Dirksen to support relaxation of the cloture rule that governed the length of a filibuster.
"Filibuster" is an informal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.
The filibuster had been used in the past to kill civil rights legislation. Cloture, specified in Senate Rule 22, could shut down a filibuster. Liberals wanted to relax the rule to permit three-fifths of senators present (60 of 100) and voting to invoke cloture instead of two-thirds (67 of 100).
But Dirksen told Mitchell that he, Dirksen, felt no special obligation to blacks because they had opposed him in his reelection last year.
The first session of the 88th Congress convened at Noon with Democrats in substantial command of both chambers. In the Senate, Democrats held 67 seats to the Republicans' 33. House Democrats outnumbered Republicans 258 to 176 with one vacant seat.
In the Senate, southern Democrats numbered 21—20 of them constituted the so-called “southern bloc” and would oppose civil rights legislation. A substantial number of Republican votes would be required to kill a filibuster and pass a bill.
In the House, southern Democrats numbered 101. These members could not be counted on the vote for a strong civil rights bill either. This left 155 Democrats to support the bill in the House with 217 votes required for final passage (all members present and voting). At least 62 Republicans votes were required to gain a majority for the bill, and that was assuming that ALL Northern and Western Democrats could be counted on to vote for a strong bill.
Southerners chaired 12 of 18 committees in the Senate and 12 of 21 committees in the House.
Of the 535 members of Congress, only five were African Americans.
The 88th Congress
In his State of the Union message, President John F. Kennedy said in his only reference to civil rights "the most precious and powerful right in the world, the right to vote in a free American election, must not be denied to any citizen on grounds of their race or color."
President Kennedy's Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union
Senators debated a proposal to ease the Senate cloture rule (Rule 22). The cloture rule is the only formal procedure that Senate rules provide for breaking a filibuster.
Debate over the proposed rule change lasted 24 days.
Dirksen announced his opposition to efforts to change the filibuster rule to permit three-fifths instead of two-thirds of senators present and voting to end debate. If all 100 senators were present and voting, the change would reduce the number of votes required to shut off debate from 67 to 60.
Dirksen’s regular television broadcast, "Your Senator Reports," dealt with “The Biennial Battle on Senate Rules,” or Rule 22.
In describing Dirksen’s meeting with NAACP representatives, newspapers reported that the senator complained about the lack of support from African American voters during his 1962 re-election campaign.
Twenty-seven House Republicans introduced comprehensive civil rights bills over the next two days (H.R. 3139-3162, 3330, 3341, 3390) which would
(1) make permanent the Civil Rights Commission and empower it to investigate election frauds;
(2) establish a federal Commission for Equality of Opportunity in Employment to investigate discrimination by government contractors;
(3) authorize the Attorney General to initiate suits on behalf of citizens denied admission to segregated schools;
(4) offer federal technical assistance to help states desegregate their public schools;
(5) provide a legal assumption of a person's literacy for voting purposes if he or she has completed six grades of school.
In introducing his bill, William McCulloch (R-OH), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, declared on the House floor that it was:
A comprehensive bill which seeks to advance the cause of civil rights in the United States. At the same time, however, it is a bill keyed to moderation. And the reason for moderation is obvious. We members of the Republican Party are honestly desirous of proposing legislation which stands a chance of enactment. Anyone, of course, can introduce grandiose legislative schemes. But reaching for the sky, rather than aiming for the possible, is a form of showmanship we don't wish to engage in. Reality is what we live by and accomplishment is what we seek. For only in compromise, moderation, and understanding are we able to fashion our society into a cohesive and durable structure.
Dirksen explained to his colleagues how, based on his long experience in Congress, Rule 22 had proven to be a valuable brake on unwise legislation.