filibusters

Issue in - very - brief

Since it comes up every time a controversial issue is about to be voted on, we thought we'd give you a brief summary of the "filibuster" (that peculiar Senate rule that, in effect, requires 60 votes to pass a bill if just one senator finds it offensive enough) along with a bit of recent history. 

What exactly is a filibuster? Congress has all sorts of rules that say how votes get made. In the Senate, in order for any bill to go up for a vote, senators must first vote to end debate on the bill - called "cloture." If 60 senators don't for cloture - or put the other way, if 41 senators vote against cloture - the bill never goes up for a final vote, in effect, killing the bill. That's a filibuster. Senators can filibuster most bills and votes for presidential appointees, but the rules don't allow a filibuster for spending bills. 

Recent History. The filibuster skated on thin ice in 2005. The Senate Republican leadership, frustrated with the number of judges that Democrats nixed in then-president Bush's first term using filibusters - and leery of any future struggles to approve controversial judges - threatened to dump the filibuster rule for judicial approvals (but not for other non-budget bills.)

A short term truce was worked out by moderate Republican and Democratic senators in late May, 2005. The Republicans promised not to ban the filibuster if the Democrats (then in the minority) didn't filibuster judicial nominees except under "extraordinary circumstances" (whatever that meant). Republicans warned that the deal would be off if Democrats tried to apply the "extraordinary circumstance" idea too broadly. Similarly, if the Republicans reneged in bad faith, the Democrats vowed to go legally ballistic, pulling out every obscure procedural rule to bring the Senate to a halt (except for bills relating to national security, they said). The truce was maintained until the deal expired when a new Congress took over January 2007.    

The (oversimplified) debate: Minority parties usually describe the filibuster as a protection against arbitrary action by the majority. In 2005, Democrats said that without the threat of filibuster, Bush could put extremist judges on the bench for life. Republicans argued that the rule had to change to keep Democrats from obstructing nominations purely for ideological reasons. But some moderate Republicans weren't going for the filibuster bashing; they saw the filibuster as a good way to keep the Senate moderate - after all, if sixty votes are needed to okay controversial decisions, a majority party with less than sixty seats always has to cooperate with folks across the aisle. (WP)

The latest blips: More recently, with the power tables having turned, there has been some talk of the Republican minority filibustering the Democrats' healthcare and climate bills, but none of that took place. As of July 2009, with Al Franken of Minnesota taking his Senate seat, the Democrats have a 60-vote majority, so there is very little chance of a filibuster actually happening.

Updated July 18, 2009.

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