Daily Video

June 19, 2017

Filibuster, cloture and the nuclear option in the Senate explained

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) (C) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (R) speak to reporters after ending a 14-hour filibuster in the hopes of pressuring the U.S. Senate to action on gun control measures, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

  • A filibuster is a parliamentary procedure in which debate over a proposed piece of legislation is extended, obstructing progress in a legislative assembly, and delaying or even preventing a vote altogether.
  • Rules in the U.S. House of Representatives place limits on debate in that chamber, but filibusters are allowed in the Senate. They can be ended by a 60-vote motion of cloture, which stops debate.
  • Because the threshold for cloture is a super-majority, the filibuster allows the minority party to prevent the majority party from unilaterally passing legislation with just a simple majority of 51 votes. It was conceived as a way to ensure that minority opinions were heard and understood before a vote proceeded, and the first one was held in 1841 as part of a debate about whether to charter the Second Bank of the United States.
  • More recently, Senators have filibustered motions to proceed a bill, preventing the measure from being debated at all, much less voted on.
  • Despite the image created by the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in which an idealistic Senator holds the floor in protest of a corrupt bill until he collapses, Senators don’t actually have to keep talking to continue a filibuster. Forty-one Senators just have to refuse to vote for cloture. However, sometimes Senators “hold the floor,” or engage in talking filibusters, to attract attention to an issue.

  • While holding the floor, Senators typically continue speaking and refrain from sitting, eating and drinking for hours on end. Because they must talk without stopping to maintain control of the floor, some discuss topics that are unrelated to the bill or even the legislative process altogether.
  • Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) memorably read bedtime stories to his daughters, including Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, during one Republican filibuster.

  • Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, which still holds the record for longest filibuster today. More recently, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) filibustered in support of gun control for 14 hours and 50 minutes.

  • In early April 2017, Senate Republicans deployed the nuclear option to lower the threshold to advance Supreme Court nominees from a filibuster-proof 60 votes to a simple majority.
  • Senate Democrats first deployed the nuclear option in 2013 to block Republican filibusters of President Obama’s appointments to lower courts and government positions. However, they left the filibuster in place for the Supreme Court.
  • Despite the rules change for the Neil Gorsuch confirmation, the legislative filibuster is still intact. However, after loosening rules for judicial nominees, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may face increasing pressure from the White House and conservative activists to do the same for legislation, which will cause the Senate to operate more like the House and lessen its status as the slower, more deliberate body.
  • Starting on Monday, Senate Democrats will hold the floor as part of an effort to block Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. They plan to force the bill to committee in an attempt to further to delay it. So far, the Senate healthcare bill has been drafted largely in secret and without debate.

By Amanda Wilcox

  • Tags:

  • Related Stories

    Tooltip of related stories

    More Videos

    Tooltip of more video block

    Submit Your Student Voice

    NewsHour Extra will not use contact information for any purpose other than our own records. We do not share information with any other organization.

    More Videos