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Filibuster Facts: Your Guide To The Senate's Slowdown Procedure
01/10/2017 Congress Andrew S
keywords: Filibuster

Although few Americans have time to learn exactly how Congress works, it pays to understand its basic rules and procedures. Chief among these is the filibuster, a legislative procedure that defines debate in the United States Senate.

The Filibuster In Focus

The filibuster is a tool to prevent legislation from coming to a vote in the Senate. In its original form, it involved giving a long speech, or series of speeches, on the Senate floor. The Senate is not allowed to vote on a bill until all Senators have finished speaking, so as long as the filibuster continued, the bill could not be passed. Today, it is usually not necessary for a Senator to actually speak during a filibuster; the Senators who oppose a bill can simply inform the Senate leadership that a filibuster is in effect.

As a result of the filibuster, ordinary legislation can only pass the Senate if a supermajority of Senators supports it. Although in theory, a bill only needs 51 votes to pass the Senate, the only way to stop a filibuster is to invoke cloture, which takes 60 votes. While some have criticized the filibuster for slowing down legislation and encouraging gridlock, others praise it for protecting minority interests against the tyranny of the majority.

Changes Considered

Like other Senate tools, the filibuster has changed considerably throughout US history. Originally, there was no way to invoke cloture against a filibuster; even if only one Senator opposed the legislation, he could obstruct it for as long as he could speak. In 1917, the Senate introduced the concept of cloture, requiring that two-thirds of Senators vote to resume debate. This was reduced to 60 Senators in 1975.

Besides changing the rules for ending a filibuster, the Senate has also modified which issues are vulnerable to it. In 1980, the Senate introduced budget reconciliation, a tool to ensure that the US government passed its yearly budget bills. A bill introduced through budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered, and thus needs only 51 votes to pass. In 2013, the Senate ruled that the filibuster could not be used to prevent the Senate from confirming presidential nominees for any judicial office other than the Supreme Court.

Since the 2016 election, with Republicans winning the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, many have speculated that the Senate will further weaken or even eliminate the filibuster. Although this remains a possibility, it is unlikely given that prominent Republicans like Orrin Hatch have refused to cooperate.

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