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How a Filibuster Works

By: John Kelly & John Donovan  | 

Filibuster Reform

filibuster
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis successfully filibustered for 13 hours in 2013 to defeat the state's proposed antiabortion legislation. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Until recent decades, filibusters were rare. During the 1950s, the Senate averaged fewer than one filibuster per session. But in the 21st century, the pace has increased dramatically. In the 116th Congress (2019-2020), cloture was invoked, stopping the threat of a filibuster, 270 times [source: senate.gov]. Both parties have filibustered when in the minority. Many feel that reform of the rules that allow filibusters is overdue.

But senators have always been reluctant to give up the power that the filibuster affords them. Plus, reformers face a major obstacle: A rule change usually requires a two-thirds vote to pass — and that can of course itself be filibustered.

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In late 2010, senators discussed filibuster reform. A number of provisions were put forth. One would have returned to the requirement that senators remain on the floor while filibustering. They could no longer block a bill by just threatening a filibuster. Another would have gradually reduced the threshold for cloture as a debate proceeded until a simple majority could end debate. A third would have banned filibusters on motions to bring a bill to the floor.

But for the most part, all other proposals failed. Instead, a handshake agreement between party leaders was put in place of limited reforms. The use of filibustering to prevent bills from being introduced was restricted. Majority Democrats agreed to allow the minority to introduce more amendments to bills. Both sides agreed not to exercise the "nuclear option," changing filibuster rules by a simple majority vote.

Some progress has been made. The cloture rule allows some filibusters to be stopped. The budget reconciliation process is another way of getting around a filibuster. According to Senate rules, bills dealing with budget matters can be protected against a filibuster. Reconciliation was used to pass the Tax Cut and Jobs Act under President Donald Trump in 2017 [source: Manetto].

In 2021, debate is again raging. With the new Senate split along party lines, 50-50, Democrats barely control the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris as president of the Senate, holding a potential tie-breaking vote. In order to pass what they see as vital legislation, some progressives are again calling for the "nuclear option." But President Joe Biden, who was a senator from Delaware for nearly four decades before serving as vice president from 2009-2017, is balking at eliminating the longstanding rule [source: Herndon, Lerer].

Originally Published: Mar 1, 2011

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Sources

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