WASHINGTON -- Senate liberals pushing for new government social programs once worried that their conservative opponents would talk their agenda to death. The weapon of choice was the filibuster, and it conjured up images of bleary-eyed senators dozing on cots in the marbled hallways of the U.S. Capitol.

They've done away with the cots, but one of the central characters in the filibuster story is the same: Walter F. Mondale, the former Minnesota senator and vice president of the United States.

After three decades, the 82-year-old Mondale was back in the Senate on Wednesday, working to soften rules that allow a determined minority to tie the "world's greatest deliberative body" into knots. In 1975 Mondale led the move to end debate on controversial measures with only 60 votes rather than 67 -- the standard that had been used to end filibusters for nearly a century.

But this time, Mondale's gray eminence is entering a more acrimonious 21st-century Senate, where both sides in the partisan divide routinely accuse one another of stalling, obstruction and generally abusing the rules of debate.

The Senate now averages two votes a week to cut off debate. Between 1917 and 1971 the average was one. A year.

At the same time, some judicial nominees find themselves put on "hold" for months, even years.

"What we see now is a logical extension of the paralysis we faced in 1975," Mondale told a Senate panel exploring parliamentary changes.

Mondale's testimony came hours before the Senate voted to end debate on a landmark Wall Street regulation bill and two months after a blistering battle over health care that nearly spelled abject failure for the Democrats because of the GOP's constant filibuster threat.

A few years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot, a Republican majority complained about the Democrats' obstructionism on Bush administration judicial appointments. There was even talk of the "nuclear option" -- going around threatened Democrats' filibuster altogether.

Tool of the minority

At the time, Senate Democrats, including current Majority Leader Harry Reid, staunchly defended the notorious delay tactic.

Now the filibuster is the target of another generation of young Turks, aided by the now battle-scarred political veteran from Elmore, Minn.

Back when Mondale faced off against the universally feared Sen. James Allen, one of the toughest tacticians of the Southern "Dixiecrat" era, the filibuster was prized by both parties as a guard against overbearing majorities.

If senators on both sides of the aisle still agree on one thing, it's that neither wants to replicate the simple majority rule that governs the U.S. House, no matter how much faster it gets things done.

"It would be a disastrous mistake, if you want the Senate to be a deliberative body," said former Republican Senate Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who testified alongside Mondale. Requiring a three-fifths majority to end debate, Nickles said, "makes the majority work with the minority."

Mondale, invited to testify by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made clear that he does not want to kill the filibuster. Instead, he said the time has come to again lower the number of senators needed to end debate and proceed to a final vote.

"There is no magic number," Mondale said. But a more appropriate range in today's hyperpartisan environment might be "between 58 and 55 members," he said.

Minnesota's two current U.S. senators are of somewhat different minds on whether to weaken the filibuster threat by lowering that number.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who appeared at Wednesday's hearing, said last month she supports it. Fellow Democrat and Senate newcomer Al Franken has been more circumspect.

"I don't favor throwing the rules out wholesale," Franken said Wednesday. "But if we could find a way to address the delay, I would be interested in that."

Mondale was not the only member of the Senate's Old Guard to weigh in at the hearing.

'A true filibuster is a fight'

Ailing 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, Mondale's former colleague, delivered a rare 20-minute speech from his wheelchair to defend the filibuster and deride the new wimpy culture of the Senate.

Senate leaders give up too often in the face of a filibuster threat nowadays, he said, afraid to engage in "forceful confrontation."

"Unbelievably, just the whisper of opposition brings the 'world's greatest deliberative body' to a grinding halt," Byrd said. "Why is that? Because this once highly respected institution has become overwhelmingly consumed by a fixation with money and media."

The solution, Byrd said, is to bring back the cots and force senators to make good on their filibuster threats, where they can try to win over colleagues by the power of their rhetoric or wear them out through sheer stamina.

"A true filibuster is a fight," Byrd said, "not a threat, not a bluff."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.