As President Biden’s term kicks off, the historically divisive mechanism of the filibuster is once again up for debate. Many Democrats, particularly those further to the left, have pushed for the complete abolition of the filibuster, while the majority of Republicans want to maintain it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded Democrats vow to not get rid of or alter the filibuster, saying “If the Democratic majority were to attack the filibuster, they would guarantee themselves immediate chaos.”
However, Sen. McConnell relented on January 25th, certain that centrist Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) had already pledged to not abolish it. This means, assuming that everyone voted on party lines, the Democrats would not be able to pass measures against the filibuster, despite their current majority.
But what exactly is the filibuster? And why does it generate so much partisan controversy?
The filibuster (a word that comes, as the U.S. Senate website notes, from the Dutch term for pirate – vrijbueter), is how a senator may exploit their power to speak on any issue for as long as they see fit.
Essentially, this allows a senator to speak until the Senate runs out of time, delaying or entirely preventing a vote on a bill. The only way to stop a filibuster is to invoke a power called cloture, which requires a 3/5ths vote (the approval of 60 senators).
Currently, the Senate is split; 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Democrats have the majority due to the role of the Vice President, Democrat Kamala Harris, as a tie-breaker vote. Assuming everyone votes along partisan lines, Senate Democrats could theoretically pass many bills important to President Biden’s agenda.
However, the Republicans could stop the passing of said bills by using the filibuster, and filibustering until Congress runs out of time and must move on to the next bill.
Filibusters have played a strong role historically as well, working both as spectacle and serious political moves. Former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) holds the record for the longest ever filibuster, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He recited documents like the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, while also discussing his and his colleagues’ opposition to the bill in question.
Populist Sen. Huey Long (D-LA) spoke for 15 and a half hours in 1935, analyzing every section of the Constitution before he began to read out recipes for fried oysters and potlikker (a southern food; the juice left behind after boiling greens or beans). Many Senators fell asleep.
In 2010, leftist Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) presented an 8 hour and 37 minute filibuster against extensions of George W. Bush era tax-cuts for the wealthy. Though he was 69 years old, he stood the entire time.
Both President Biden and Vice President Harris have expressed openness towards eliminating or modifying the filibuster, “Depending on how obstreperous (unruly and difficult to work with),” Republicans are; whether they intend to point-blank block many Democrat-backed efforts.
The process to abolish or change the filibuster would be complicated, requiring either a formal change of the rule that requires 60 senatorial votes for cloture or a procedural move known as “the nuclear option.”
To change the rule, a 2/3rds majority vote of 67 senators is necessary, which is highly unlikely considering the current balance of power in the Senate.
The “nuclear option” involves changing the precedent rather than altering the rule. By vote, it alters what is called the precedent — the standard interpretation of the rule. This requires the usual majority, 51 senators in support of the change.
Whether or not that is possible is still unclear, considering the lack of support from the previously mentioned Senators Manchin and Sinema. While they have vowed not to abolish the filibuster, their position on altering it is still unknown.
Whatever happens, it will likely be key in determining what bills will be passed, and exactly how effective President Biden’s term will be overall.