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Gov: The Senate

The filibuster has changed over the years, and has become the primary tool in the Senate for obstructing bills that otherwise would receive majority votes.

In this section we report news regarding filibusters, from how the tactic affects legislation to how the Senate attempts to change its filibuster policies.

You can get an understanding of the issue - including how we got to where we are - by clicking here.

Related Issues

Understanding Senate Filibusters

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Senate speeds confirmations for judges and appointees

2019-Apr-08By: Barry Shatzman

Senate debate on whether to confirm most presidential nominees now will be limited to two hours, as the Republican-led Senate reduced the debate requirement. The limit had been 30 hours.

The reduced time allowed for debate will affect nominees for federal district courts and low-level presidential appointees. It will not affect nominees for the Supreme Court or federal appeals courts. They also will not apply to cabinet-level nominees. The debate limit for those nominees will remain 30 hours.

Filibusters for legislation is not affected

It still will require 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate.

Changing the filibuster rules for legislation is different than changing the rules for nominees, because legislation needs to pass both houses of Congress in order to become law. So eliminating the filibuster for legislation would only be effective if the House of Representatives was controlled by the same party as the Senate.

Going nuclear - again

Judicial and executive nominees, however, need to be approved only by the Senate. This move - referred to as the nuclear option - was yet another step the Senate has taken toward increasing the ability of the majority party to impose its will.

o In 2013, the Democratic-led Senate eliminated the filibuster for presidential nominations and federal judges (except for Supreme Court nominees).

o In 2017, the Republican-led Senate eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

o The Senate Judiciary Committee has increasingly been ignoring blue slips, an informal mechanism for senators to block the confirmation of judicial nominees from their state.

Trump could have hundreds of judges confirmed by 2020

Trump already has remade the country's court system. Two of the the nine Supreme Court justices are Trump appointees. The Senate already has confirmed more than 90 other federal judges that he nominated.

There currently are 130 District Court vacancies.

The new rule shortens the amount of time to confirm each nominee by about a day.

The new rules also limit discussion on non-Cabinet-level executive appointees

Trump also has been pushing for faster confirmation of nominees to executive positions whose experiences appear to coincide with his ongoing legal concerns.

Along with the appointment of William Barr to be attorney general, he pressed for quick approval of Michael Desmond to be the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) chief counsel.

That role puts Desmond in position to advise the IRS on whether to release Trump's tax returns to Congress. He is a former tax adviser to the Trump Organization.

Senate eliminates filibuster for Supreme Court justices

2017-Apr-06By: Barry Shatzman

The Republican majority in the Senate has voted to disallow filibusters for Supreme Court nominations.

The effect is that the Senate can confirm Supreme Court justices with a simple majority vote.

Referred to as the nuclear option, the tactic was last employed in 2013, when Democrats had the majority in the Senate. Senate Republicans had filibustered approximately 80 of President Barack Obama's nominations - including three justices to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.

Including those, there had been only 168 filibusters to presidential appointments in the nation's history.

The 2013 Senate action eliminated the filibuster for nominations other than Supreme Court justices. While the latest action would eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court justices, Senate rules still allow for any bill to be filibustered (although there is nothing to prevent that from changing).

Republicans threaten to disallow filibuster for Supreme Court

2016-Nov-18

Senate Republicans are saying that they will approve President-Elect Donald Trump's nominations for Supreme Court justices regardless of objections by Democrats.

A filibuster over a judge would mean requiring 60 votes in the Senate to approve a nominee. However, the Constitution allows the Senate to make its own rules. Because the rules would be decided on by a majority, Republicans could vote to eliminate the filibuster.

Senate stops filibusters against presidential appointments

2013-Nov-22  (Updated: 2013-Nov-28)By: Rob Dennis and Barry Shatzman

The Senate will no longer allow silent filibusters to block presidential appointments. Democrats on Nov. 22 changed the Senate rules to allow presidential nominees be approved by a simple majority. The change does not affect Supreme Court nominees or legislation.

Senators still may invoke the traditional "talking filibuster", in which they speak indefinitely. After senators have spoken, however, a majority vote will be enough to confirm a nominee.

The rule change was prompted by a Republican filibuster of three judicial nominees to the 11-seat District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. This court typically decides cases involving federal agencies and regulations, so it is considered one of the nation's most important courts.

Of the court's eight current justices, half were appointed by a Republican president and half by a Democratic president. Republicans recently proposed reducing the number of seats on the court to the eight already filled. Excessive caseloads would be handled by the court's six part-time "senior" judges. Five of those six were appointed by Republican presidents.

Although obstructionist tactics have been used by both houses of Congress since the country's early days, they have been used during the Obama administration at unprecedented levels (for more on this see our discussion on the Filibuster issue)

The vote to change the rule was 52-48. All 45 Senate Republicans, as well as Democrats Carl Levin, Mark Pryor, and Joe Manchin, voted against the rule change.

How filibuster rules helped kill gun legislation

2013-Apr-18

An amendment to a Senate bill that would have required background checks on guns purchased at gun shows and over the Internet failed - in spite of receiving 54 votes out of 100 senators. The reason - the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster.

Technically, the gun bill amendments were not filibustered. The procedural option used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, still caused the amendments to require 60 votes for approval. It was a procedure that would not have been necessary under traditional filibuster rules unless a senator (or group of senators) decided to hold an actual talking filibuster.

For more, read this Washington Post story.

To read about the background check amendment that failed, click here.

Senate agrees to filibuster rules

2013-Jan-24

Senate leaders have reached agreement on a filibuster reform plan that likely would do little to ease the gridlock that has seized the institution in recent years.

The agreement would change how the filibuster is used against motions to proceed with legislation and to send bills to conference with the House of Representatives. It also would speed up the process by which presidential nominations - except those to the Cabinet or the Supreme Court - are considered.

It would not, however, require a filibustering senator to actually speak on the Senate floor - allowing the "silent filibuster" to remain.

Instead, it follows a compromise proposal submitted in late December by a bipartisan group of senators, including Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Senate rules permit senators to speak for as long as they want on any topic unless three-fifths of them vote to bring debate to a close (known as invoking cloture). Because Senators simply can threaten to filibuster - rather than having to actually speak - a 60-vote "supermajority" effectively is required to pass legislation or confirm presidential appointments.

Because a vote is needed to allow a bill to be discussed on the Senate floor, or allow a bill to be discussed in a conference committee with the House of Representatives (when Congress passes a bill for the president to sign, both the Senate and House versions must be identical), a filibuster threat from a single senator can keep the bill from even being debated.

Under the deal, Democrats could "fast-track" legislation and avoid a filibuster with the agreement of the majority and minority leaders and seven senators from each party. In exchange, Republicans would be allowed to offer at least two amendments to such bills.

You can read (in Senate lingo) the actual text of the proposed rule changes here and here (both are .pdf files)

Senate continues negotiations on filibuster

2013-Jan-22

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has further delayed a showdown on filibuster reform while negotiations continue.

The filibuster is a stalling tactic in which a senator or group of senators talks at length to delay or prevent a vote. Senate rules permit senators to speak for as long as they want on any topic unless three-fifths of them vote to bring debate to a close (referred to as "cloture"). In the modern Senate, however, a senator can create a virtual filibuster by simply threatening to have one. This has been called a "silent" filibuster. Thus, in practice, it can take a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation or confirm presidential appointments.

In the past four years, hundreds of bills and presidential nominations have been delayed or stopped by "silent" filibusters, making it virtually impossible for Congress to pass meaningful legislation that could benefit most Americans.

Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tom Harkin of Iowa have introduced legislation that would re-establish "old-school" filibusters, forcing senators who want to use the tactic actually to speak on the floor. Once a filibustering senator (or group of senators) stops speaking, the filibuster could be broken by a 51-vote majority. It also would eliminate the filibuster on motions to proceed (a motion to bring a bill up for consideration) and motions to move bills to conference with the House of Representatives.

Reid's proposal differs from that of Merkley, Udall, and Harkin. It is a watered-down verion which would eliminate the filibuster on motions to proceed and motions to conference, but would still allow the "silent" filibuster. He also has proposed shifting the burden for continuing a filibuster to the opposing group - requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster rather than 60 votes to break one. He also has proposed lessening the number of filibusters on some presidential nominations.

As Senate Majority Leader, Reid effectively retains the option to allow for the Senate rules to change by a 51-vote majority.

For more details on the filibuster negotiation, read the Politico.com report.

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