Congress is at the mercy of one Senate rule: The filibuster
By Christopher Hickey and Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
Updated May 28, 2021
If you don’t understand how 35 Republicans are more powerful than 54 senators and how they killed a bipartisan effort to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, this is the story for you. The story of modern Washington is the story of the filibuster.
That’s the tactic of dragging out debate in the US Senate to make it harder to get things done. Thanks to Senate rules, whichever party is out of power has the ability, through filibusters, to squash nearly everything the in-power party wants to do unless the minority party agrees.
Passing legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes to block a filibuster — votes that Democrats don’t have now and may not have even after the midterm elections next year. Republicans haven’t worked well with Democrats in years. Democrats have lost patience with Republicans. Neither party has a supermajority.
The two most substantial legislative accomplishments of the past 12 years — former President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — were only achieved by one party finding a way around the filibuster.
Today, every piece of President Joe Biden’s agenda — voting rights, immigration reform and updating infrastructure — faces an organized blockade by Republicans, who already refused to get on board with his Covid-19 stimulus plan in March.
So, in the absence of any sign Republicans will work with them, a growing pool of congressional Democrats are saying they now back reinterpreting Senate rules so they can pass legislation with a simple majority. They’re going to need to convince their most conservative member, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, to get on board, along with a handful of other Democratic holdouts.
Here’s how the filibuster has made accomplishing anything on Capitol Hill incredibly difficult, and what could happen if the Senate rules are changed.
Fifty years ago, cloture was almost never invoked. Today, filibuster threats are so common, cloture is required for nearly everything the Senate does. An added wrinkle is that bringing a bill to a vote requires unanimous consent — in other words, all 100 senators have to agree to hold a vote on a bill, an amendment or a presidential nomination.
If every senator is not on the same page, then the bill can only advance by breaking a filibuster on a motion to proceed — and that time-consuming process can take at least two days just to begin debate. In today’s Congress, these votes to bring bills to a vote are often just another chance to filibuster.
Cloture rules have changed over time. The cloture rule was revised in the 1970s to require 60 votes instead of 67. In 2013, Democrats under former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the voting precedent through what’s known as the “nuclear option“ to confirm Obama’s Cabinet nominees with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority. Republicans then used that same option in 2017 to advance Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. Those are the two exceptions; a supermajority is required to vote on and approve any other kind of Senate business.
Cloture ends filibusters because it ends everything else, too. According to Senate Rule XXII, once the Senate invokes cloture, “then said measure, motion or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion
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