How a Filibuster Works

Filibuster Reform

Until recent decades, filibusters were rare. During the 1950s, the Senate averaged less than one filibuster per session. But in the 21st century, the pace has increased dramatically. In 2007 and 2008 there were 139 filibusters or threatened filibusters affecting 70 percent of major legislation [sources: Harkin, Schlesinger]. 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 can itself be filibustered.

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 welfare reform, President Bush's tax cuts and the 2010 health care law [source: Klein].

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 [source: Abrams].

All the proposals failed. Instead, a handshake agreement between party leaders put in place a number 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 [source: Abrams]. This agreement may limit filibustering somewhat, but the tactic is so ingrained in the tradition of the Senate that we're unlikely to see it disappear any time soon.

Read on for more information about filibusters.

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