By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden has been increasingly open last month in advocating changing the Senate filibuster tradition to circumvent a Republican roadblock that has threatened important aspects of the Democratic agenda.
After long opposition to change, Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, said Thursday the chamber should “fundamentally change” the long-running process that requires 60 of the 100 Senators to approve most of the laws that Republicans have blocked from voting. and which brought the country dangerously close to crippling debt default earlier this month.
Democrats could use their wafer-thin Senate majority to abolish or change the rule, though doing so requires the approval of all of its members, including moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have voiced objections.
WHAT IS THE FILIBUSTER?
“Filibuster” means delaying action on a bill or other issue by speaking.
The Senate filibuster first caught the American imagination in Frank Capra’s film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ”as Jimmy Stewart’s character spoke for over a day, and most recently in 2013 when Texas State Senator Wendy Davis spoke for 13 hours trying to block a law that introduced new abortion restrictions imposed.
The popular image of a lonely lawmaker arguing passionately for hours belies the reality in today’s Senate, where a mere threat is enough to instigate a filibuster and halt a bill.
A filibuster can only be stopped if a super majority of 60 Senators vote to end the debate in a process called Cloture.
WHY IS THE RULE A PROBLEM FOR Democrats?
With just 50 Senators in their faction right now, Democrats can’t beat filibusters unless at least 10 Republicans vote with them.
With the help of the 51st But the rules limit the use of this process.
Despite getting 19 Republican votes for a $ 1 trillion package to modernize the country’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, Republicans have blocked many other Democratic priorities, including a voting rights measure.
Senate Republicans have used the filibuster this year to block voting legislation aimed at countering new restrictions put in place in Republican-led states by supporters of Donald Trump’s false claims that Donald Trump’s November 2020 defeat was a long way off due to widespread fraud.
They also warn that they could ban a vote later this year to avoid a catastrophic debt default. A previous roadblock for the move prompted Biden to say earlier this month that he was open to changing filibusters.
But he went ahead at a CNN town hall on Thursday and said he would support a rule change to pass the voting measure “and maybe more”, though he said he would take no steps until Congress passes a couple of bills that has included the bulk of his domestic agenda.
WHEN DID THE SENATE ADOPT THE FILIBUSTER RULE?
Although the constitution doesn’t mention filibusters, lengthy Senate speeches became an increasingly common tactic in the 19th century.
In 1917, most senators had had enough and agreed that a two-thirds majority vote could end the debate.
But it was hard to get two-thirds of the Senate, so the filibusters continued. Notoriously they were used by southern senators trying to block civil rights laws.
In 1975 the Senate reduced the requirement to limit the debate to three-fifths of the Senate – currently 60 senators.
During that decade, the Senate leadership began to agree to set aside measures that threatened a filibuster while the chamber acted on other bills.
The move was intended to prevent the opposition to a single bill from bringing all work to a standstill in the chamber, but it also meant that the filibuster switched from an energy-draining maneuver of lengthy speeches to a mere objection or threat of objection.
Over time, the number of filibusters increased. A count of votes attempting to overcome a filibuster, the next reliable deputy, shows 298 such votes in the 2019-2020 legislative period. That is 168 such votes in the two previous years. From 1969 to 1970 there were six.
CAN THE FILIBUSTER BE CHANGED?
There have already been changes.
In 2013, the Democrats lifted the 60-vote barrier for most candidates for administrative jobs, with the exception of the Supreme Court, so that they could proceed by simple majority.
In 2017, Republicans did the same for the Supreme Court candidates. Both the 2013 and 2017 changes were made with a simple majority.
Several filibuster reform ideas have been circulated that may be on the verge of ending. They include an exception for voting laws only, limiting the number of filibusters against a single bill, or forcing those running a filibuster to stand in the Senate and speak until one side gives in.
WHO AGAINST CHANGE?
For example, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. Earlier this year he tried, but failed, to get an explicit promise from Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer to protect the filibuster.
“No one serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a scorched-earth Senate would look like,” McConnell said in March.
His move earlier this month to allow a vote to temporarily raise the debt ceiling was partly motivated by a desire to protect the filibuster, according to aides and lawmakers.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone, Aurora Ellis, and Jonathan Oatis)