As the start of the new Congress approaches, Senate Democrats are considering changes to the Senate filibuster rule.
The filibuster is a controversial procedure where a minority of Senators extend debate indefinitely in order to prevent a vote on, and presumably defeat, a piece of legislation they oppose. While the filibuster often evokes images of Senators “talking a bill to death” on the Senate floor, current Senate rules allow Senators to block legislation without leaving their office. In fact, current rules make it possible for Senators to anonymously filibuster.
Even if the required supermajority of 60 Senators vote to end debate, called “invoking cloture,” obstructionists can still force the Senate to wait an additional 30 working-hours before proceeding.
This obstruction has greatly reduced the Senate’s ability to pass legislation. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “In the last three Congresses, the percentage of Senate floor activity devoted to cloture votes has been more than 50 percent greater than any other time since at least World War II.” This worsened the logjam in which the Senate passed only 2.8% of its own bills, a 66% decrease since 2005. Judicial nominees are also caught up in the Senate stall – the vacancy rate for federal judges is 50%, creating 32 “judicial emergencies.” As many pundits have put it, “the Senate is the place where bills go to die.”
Typically, a 2/3 supermajority is required to change Senate rules. However, some Senate Democrats argue that the Constitution allows for a simple majority to amend the rules at the beginning of each session. Accordingly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has proposed a series of amendments to the filibuster. One proposal would end the filibuster on the motion to proceed (in other words, no more endless debate about whether or not to start debating a piece of legislation). Leader Reid would also require filibustering Senators to actually get up and speak for the duration of the debate.
According to Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of organizations fighting to reform the filibuster, it is unlikely that any Republicans will back the proposed changes. The changes to the filibuster will likely have to come from within the Democratic Caucus, which will hold a 55-45 majority in the 113th Congress.