(WHTM) — President Joe Biden recently called for changes to the filibuster as Democrats try to pass voting rights legislation. The filibuster has been around since at least the mid-1800s when the tactic was given its name, and it has been causing headaches — and, during “talking” filibusters, foot aches — for politicians ever since.
The filibuster enables members of the minority party in the Senate to delay a vote on legislation and check the power of the majority party. Franklin & Marshall College professor of government Stephen Medvic described the tactic as “endless debate” in a previous interview with abc27.
As it works today, a senator can filibuster most legislation that reaches the Senate, and then at least 60 senators have to vote in favor of ending the filibuster, thus invoking cloture and moving the legislation to a vote.
Medvic explained that one way to end the filibuster would require a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate to change the 60-vote threshold required for cloture, which is almost impossible to achieve, especially right now with a polarized 50-50 Senate. Adam Lawrence, associate professor in the department of Government, Policy, and Law at Millersville University, explained that there is a simpler way to change Senate rules, dubbed the “nuclear option.”
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Using the “nuclear option,” the Senate majority leader can call for a vote to change a Senate rule, and then only a simple majority of senators (51, which can include the vice president in the case of a tie) must vote in favor of the change in order for it to go into effect. “So in effect, the Senate can change any aspect of the filibuster using the nuclear option,” Lawrence explained.
The filibuster has been changed in the past. It went from a “talking” filibuster, during which senators had to actively speak about an issue to delay the vote, to the “silent” filibuster most common today, in which a senator simply issues a filibuster or states their intent to filibuster legislation without having to monologue to prolong the debate.
Lawrence noted that other more recent changes came from both Democrats and Republicans. In 2013, Democrat Harry Reid led the use of the “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster for executive branch and lower court appointments. And in 2017, Republicans led by Mitch McConnell got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments, Lawrence explained.
Although Biden is urging changes to the filibuster, Lawrence says that with at least two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — opposed to changing the filibuster, it seems unlikely that there are enough votes to change or eliminate the rule in the current Senate.
On top of that, Lawrence said, “The filibuster is supposed to act as a check on ‘the tyranny of the majority,’ and the senators know that and by and large support it because eventually, they’re going to be in the minority.”
As legislation continuously stalls in the Senate and it seems like the votes to change the filibuster just aren’t there, Lawrence said that maybe instead of changing the filibuster, lawmakers could break large comprehensive bills into smaller pieces. This could force legislators to vote on specific issues, such as making Election Day a federal holiday, rather than huge clusters of proposals, some of which may have more support than others.