What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Senate reaches agreement on filibuster rule, but reform is still on the table

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday dropped his demand that Democrats guarantee they would keep the filibuster rule, which gives both parties power on most votes. This after two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, stressed they would not vote to dismantle it. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Lisa reported earlier, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell backed away from the standoff over the filibuster last night.

    While Democrats do not have the votes for it now, this means filibuster reform is still technically on the table.

    So, what does all this mean?

    Lisa joins me now to answer your questions.

    So, Lisa, we heard you speaking about the filibuster. We want you to remind us, what is it and why is it important?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, technically, a filibuster is anything that obstructs or blocks legislation, especially in the Senate.

    But, of course, most people know it as senators using their right to talk as long as they want. They can only be cut off if 60 other senators vote for something called cloture to end that.

    So, I think, for people, the dominant reference to a filibuster is this from 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," where Senator Jimmy Stewart managed to win the day by talking until he dropped.

  • Jimmy Stewart:

    You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. and I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Love that movie.

    I just can't overstate the importance of this filibuster, because what the filibuster does in practice in U.S. government is, it means that there is not a majority rule in the Senate, but, instead, a supermajority rule.

    Now, supporters of the filibuster say that's good because it adds stability, that the Congress will not veer right and left due to sudden changes. But opponents say that's the problem, that the Senate cannot really react to the need for sudden change, and that it is not governed by majority rule.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm so glad you gave us a look at Jimmy Stewart again. We love that movie.

    But, Lisa, I understand you got more than 200 questions about the filibuster today on Twitter. Tell us what people are asking you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm happy we hit some fellow nerds' nerves.

    Yes, let me go through some of the great questions.

    First, I want to raise this excellent one: "When did the filibuster evolved from the marathon 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' to the threat of the filibuster that exists now?"

    This has happened over time, but we can see, really, the difference is how often the filibuster is used now. If you look at this chart, look at the remarkable rise in the use of the filibuster. This is the number of times each Senate in those years has voted to try and end a filibuster, some years hardly at all. Now we're into the hundreds.

    As the Senate has held more and more votes to end the filibuster, this has meant that the filibuster has become a part of everyday life in the Senate. So, senators aren't doing these talkathons anymore, as much as they're just sort of issuing the demand for a filibuster, to close it, and going about their business holding those votes as if it was just a regular, silent, everyday part of life.

    Another question that we got, another excellent one: "Who has benefited more from the filibuster over the years, Democrats or Republicans?"

    We contacted the Senate Historical Office to talk about this. Now, in the early days of the republic, everyone used the filibuster. But, in the 20th century, in particular, Southern Democrats used the filibuster the most, and they used it to block civil rights legislation and also legislation trying to change racist power structures.

    It became part of their operation. And now we know, as it has changed, as it has shifted in the past couple of decades, both parties have used it when they have been in the minority, particularly when we're talking about judicial nominees, as we saw with Supreme Court nominees.

    In the past — in the past couple of years, Republicans removed the filibuster specifically so they could get their Supreme Court nominees through.

  • One more question:

    "Has the filibuster encouraged or discouraged compromise?"

    The truth is, what the filibuster has done more than anything, I think, Judy, it has meant fewer large bills have been able to pass through Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Lisa, tell us where do things stand on the filibuster, and particularly for Democrats who are trying to move aggressively right now?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats do not have the votes to reform the filibuster right now.

    But they are still holding out hope, some of them, that even they can't remove the filibuster, perhaps they change is, so it's not 60 votes required, but fewer, 55 or less. That debate will have to remain for another day.

    Chuck Schumer is under a lot of pressure from progressives to pass progressive legislation. Right now, he doesn't have the votes to do it because of the filibuster, but that debate, as I said, will keep hanging over the Senate and especially over Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, the queen of the filibuster, Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

Listen to this Segment