What is a Filibuster? Here’s What You Need to Know About the Scale-Tipping Senate Tradition.


Senator Dianne Feinstein of California released a statement Friday saying she is now open to filibuster reform, a move she has been openly opposed to for years.

The statement came in response to last Tuesday’s shootings in Atlanta, in which a white gunman killed 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women.

“Just this week we saw a union of gun violence, violence against women, and hate crimes in the tragic shootings in Atlanta,” said Feinstein. “I have tried for years to pass legislation in these areas.”

Feinstein went on to address her concern for passing legislation in a Senate system where the minority has the power to disrupt Senate votes, adding that if Republicans “continue to abuse the filibuster by requiring cloture votes,” she is “open to changing the way the Senate filibuster rules are used.”

But what exactly is the Filibuster?

According to the U.S. Senate website, the Filibuster is “a loosely defined term for action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question.”

When a bill is brought to the floor in a normal Senate setting, it is then debated and voted on. However, a Filibuster allows debate to go on indefinitely, which many Democrats believe prevents the Senate from getting anything done.

At the time of the U.S.’ founding, any senator could propose a simple majority vote to end debate. But in 1806, Senator Aaron Burr proposed that the Senate dispose of the rule.

The result of Burr’s decision led to an increase in Filibusters as a tactic to prevent bills from passing throughout the 19th century.

In 1917, frustrated by the lack of work getting done in the Senate, President Woodrow Wilson urged senators to adopt Senate Rule 22, which once again allowed senators to vote to end a debate. This time, however, the vote required a supermajority – two-thirds of the senate, to end the debate.

As it is difficult to get a two-thirds majority vote, Filibusters have been used by senators to prevent passing important legislation.

During the Civil Rights Era, for example, southern senators used Filibusters to prevent civil rights legislation from passing through the Senate. Even now, the anti-lynching bill proposed in 1918 has yet to become law.

In today’s Senate, Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts want to eliminate the filibuster once and for all by returning the vote to end debate to a simple majority, while others like Sen. Feinstein are open to some reform.

Independent Sen. Agnus King of Maine told CNN that the Filibuster is “a double-edged sword.”

“Democrats may be very intent on getting rid of it now, but that means they won’t have it as a protection under a future Republican president and Republican senate,” he added.

When the For The People Act of 2021, a new bill designed to expand voting rights nationwide reaches the Senate floor, Democrats expect Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold the bill in Senate using the Filibuster — a move which many believe will open the rule to more discussion.

“If Republicans block S.1,” Sen. Warren told CNN, referring to the act, “that will turn up the heat on taking away Mitch McConnell’s veto.”

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