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A filibuster is an extremely long speech that is designed primarily to stall the legislative process and thus derail a particular piece of legislation, rather than to make a particular point per se. The term first came into use in the United States Senate, where senate rules permit a senator or a series of senators to speak for as long as they wish on any topic they like. Under senate rules, the speech need not be relevant to the topic under discussion, and there have been cases in which a senator has undertaken part of a speech by reading from a telephone book. Legendary Senator Strom Thurmond set a record in 1957 by filibustering a civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Until 1917 there was no formal mechanism to allow the senate to close debate and any senator could start a filibuster. From 1917 to 1949 two-thirds of those voting could limit debate on a measure. As civil rights loomed on the Senate agenda, this rule was revised in 1949 to allow cloture on any measure or motion by two-thirds of the entire Senate membership; in 1959 the threshold was restored to two-thirds of those voting. After a series of filibusters in the 1960s over civil rights legislation, the Senate revised its cloture rule so that three-fifths of the Senate (usually 60 senators) could limit debate. Despite this rule, the filibuster or the threat of a filibuster remains an important tactic that allows a large minority to affect legislation.

The procedure for "invoking cloture," or ending a filibuster, is as follows:

After cloture has been invoked, the following restrictions apply: Filibusters do not occur in legislative bodies such as the United States House of Representatives in which time for debate is strictly limited by procedural rules.

In current practice, Senate rules permit procedural filibusters, in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required, although the Senate majority leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he so chooses.

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Another meaning of filibuster, and perhaps the original one, is where a private individual with a mercenary force attempts or accomplishes an invasion or a revolution in a foreign state, with an aim towards establishing himself as its ruler. A good example of this type of filibuster was William Walker's campaign in Nicaragua.