Returning from an election that maintained their control of the Senate, Democratic legislators led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are contemplating an effort to overhaul or even eliminate the filibuster. The filibuster is a long-held Senate tradition that allows a minority to hold up legislation. To override a filibuster requires three fifths of the majority (60 votes) to vote in favor of ending debate on a bill, which is called cloture. Films like 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depict the filibuster as a dramatic event, requiring senators to talk nonstop to extend the "debate." But that sort of "talking filibuster" has been supplanted with less dramatic procedures like the cloture vote, with a filibuster being more virtual than real. Once a rarely used legislative tactic the filibuster was invoked nearly 70 times in the 112th Congress.
Democrats say the recent surge in filibusters proves Republicans are abusing the system to bring the legislative process to a halt. Proponents of changing the filibuster have suggested a number of changes, from bringing back the "talking" filibuster to allowing filibusters only on actual votes and not on whether to debate legislation—but Reid and other Democratic senators have yet to spell out exactly the changes they favor. Defenders of the filibuster caution against changing the system, saying that the filibuster is an important protection of minority-party rights. They say the filibuster goes back to the founders' wish to create a federal government with carefully constructed checks and balances and that augmenting the process threatens the very state of American democracy. Some Republicans call the idea of overhauling the filibuster a Democratic power grab.
Should there be filibuster reform? Here is the Debate Club's take:
Mitch McConnell Senate Minority Leader
Jeff Merkley Democratic Senator from Oregon
KC Johnson Professor at Brooklyn College
John C. Fortier Director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center