The Filibuster

From our Political Analyst Demetria Carter ...


There is a lot of talk about the filibuster these days and whether it should be eliminated in the Senate.  The Democrats are exerting tons of pressure on squishy Republicans and Democrat holdouts to get rid of the filibuster. As always the Democrats overreach and overreact.  They are now calling the procedure racist!  Somehow the use of the tactic wasn’t racist when the Democrat Senators filibustered legislation under Trump, the Bushes, and Reagan. Then it was to save democracy!  Now it destroys democracy!  What two-faced liars and charlatans! 

This debate is important for both Republicans and Democrats because depending on which party is in the minority in the Senate, the filibuster is the only way to stop legislation (that is not a spending bill***) dead in its tracks. For the Republicans in a Democrat trifecta—White House, Senate, and House of Representatives—the filibuster is the only thing that saves this Republic from the passage of the Equality Act (H.R. 5), the bill that elevates gender identity to a protected class and allows biological males access to girls’ bathrooms, showers, and dressing rooms.  The filibuster will save us from the passage of the “For the People Act (H.R. 1 or S.1), the bill by which the Federal Government takes over the election process from States. The filibuster also will save us from all the gun control and confiscation bills and immigration amnesty bills that have passed the House of Representatives. 

Let’s start with some basics.  Only a majority vote is required to pass a bill in the Senate, as in the House. In the Senate, however, once a Senator has been recognized by the presiding officer to speak on the floor, that Senator is allowed to speak for as long as he or she wishes—no time limit!  Think of Jimmy Stewart's fictional stand for hours on the Senate floor before collapsing from exhaustion in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."  Or, consider the real-life example of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who, in 1957, spoke for just over 24 hours straight in an effort to block the Civil Rights Act. He ran out of things to say and began reading from a telephone book.

So, what is a filibuster?  A filibuster essentially is “any tactic used to obstruct or delay legislation” in the Senate. Most often today, the filibuster takes the form of a simple objection, as in “I object!” 

Bills must first be debated on the Senate floor. Ending the debate to move on to a full vote on the bill can happen in only one of two ways.

  • First, and most often, the majority leader (or another senator) seeks “unanimous consent,” asking if any of the 100 senators object to ending debate and moving to a vote. If no objection is heard, the Senate proceeds to a vote.
  • Second, if the majority leader can’t secure the consent of all 100 senators, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion to end the debate.  Cloture motions need 60 votes to adopt the motion. If fewer than 60 senators support cloture (i.e. support efforts to end the debate), the “measure has been filibustered”.

It wasn’t until 1917 when Senate Rule 22 (written Rule XXII) initially set the minimum requirement for ending debate at 2/3rds (now 3/5ths or normally 60) of those “present and voting.” 

Because the minority party almost always has the votes to sustain a filibuster, Rule 22 is widely considered the most important rule in the Senate. 

There should be no way any Republican in the Senate supports the elimination of Rule 22 during these most difficult times or at any time. But, as we have seen recently, Republicans cross the aisle with alacrity and vote with Democrats more often than we Republicans care to admit!  And, because two Democrat Senators, Manchin (WV) and Sinema (AZ), have indicated they oppose its elimination, the filibuster appears here to stay.  But they are Democrats, and Democrat leadership will punish them if they fail to toe the line.