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As 2020 Democratic candidates campaign for sweeping changes to the tax system, immigration, health care, gun control and corruption, a few candidates have suggested that, if elected, they would direct their Senate allies to abolish the filibuster, a tactic used by senators to delay or block legislative action.
The big picture: Regardless of a candidate's stance on filibusters, the Senate makes its own rules at the discretion of the majority party. Democrats would have to win back the Senate to ban filibusters.
- Specifically, Democrats — who currently hold 45 Senate seats and caucus with two independent members to bring their total to 47 — would have to win at least four Senate seats in 2020 to constitute the simple majority necessary to change the chamber's rules.
- Alternatively, Democrats can claim a simple majority if they pick up three Senate seats and the White House, using the vice president to break tie votes.
How filibusters work: Filibusters are possible in the Senate because of its tradition of allowing unlimited time for debate for most legislative actions. In general, these privileges empower the minority party of the chamber.
- Any senator, once recognized by the presiding officer during debate, can speak for as long as he or she wishes and can offer any amendment or motion to the matter under consideration.
- Senators can only limit debate by invoking "cloture," which ends debate and allows a final vote. It normally takes 60 votes — or a three-fifths supermajority — to establish cloture. But there are two ways senators can filibuster a cloture vote.
- An "individual" filibuster occurs when a single senator holds the floor and speaks for a long period of time. However, these filibusters are normally unsuccessful at blocking legislative action because senators can hold a cloture vote after their exhausted colleague inevitably relinquishes the floor.
- A "silent" filibuster happens when at least 41 senators tell the majority leader that they oppose a matter under consideration. 41 is a key number because that group of senators will vote against ending debate if the body holds a cloture vote. This prevents a vote on the matter under consideration, effectively killing it.
- As a result of the silent filibuster, requiring 60 votes to end debate has now become necessary to pass a lot of legislation.
How the Senate could remove filibusters: If the Democrats attained a simple majority in the 2020 elections, they could decrease the number of votes needed to invoke cloture on all legislative matters to a simple majority of 51 votes.
- Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his fellow Democrats in 2013 reduced the necessary votes needed to enact cloture to 51 votes for confirming lower court federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments.
- Reducing the number of votes needed to enact cloture to a simple majority is also known as the "nuclear option."
Where the candidates stand
Former Vice President Joe Biden: It is also unclear whether Biden would support abolishing filibusters, but he has experience using them during his time in the Senate and avoiding them during his vice presidency.
- In 2009, Biden helped pass an economic stimulus bill by personally convincing three Republicans to vote for cloture on the bill.
- She recognizes that her proposals like the Green Manufacturing Plan, Medicare for All and sweeping anti-corruption reforms could be hamstrung in the Senate by filibusters.
- Instead, he said his administration and congressional allies could pass policies by attaching them to budget reconciliation bills, which cannot be filibustered by the minority party, according to Senate rules.
- But reconciliation bills are limited to matters that affect the budget by adding to or reducing federal spending. Regulatory changes cannot be passed through reconciliation.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg said his administration would consider abolishing filibusters "because our sense of fair play among Democrats has bitten us far too many times for us to be naive about it." But he ultimately said it is up to senators to eliminate the tactic.
Sen. Kamala Harris: Harris said she would first try working with Senate Republicans to combat climate change if elected, but she would support abolishing filibusters if they prevent climate change legislation.
Sen. Cory Booker: Booker said he is hesitant about reducing the strength of the minority party in the Senate by eliminating filibusters. "I think it is good to have the power of the filibuster," he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: It is unclear how Klobuchar feels about filibusters, but in 2017, she said she regretted that Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold to approve judicial nominees. That year, Klobuchar also signed a bipartisan letter supporting filibusters.
Former tech executive Andrew Yang: Yang has promised that his administration would advocate for eliminating filibusters, saying their absence would create "a flexible government that can get things done."
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro: Castro told The Atlantic that he advocates eliminating filibusters, saying if elected, he would rather pass universal health care legislation than preserve "a Senate rule that is not in the Constitution and has already been violated many times."
Author Marianne Williamson: Williamson told the Post that she does not believe the Senate can function if legislation requires a three-fifths supermajority to pass, but she said simple filibusters should remain a symbolic tool of opposition.
The bottom line: Revoking the Senate's long-standing 60-vote threshold would significantly limit the minority party's power in the chamber, but it will remain as long as the majority in the chamber supports filibusters.