Explained: What is going on with the U.S. Senate filibuster?

Pressure is growing to end the filibuster, the long-standing Senate custom of delaying action on a bill or other issue by talking, which requires a supermajority to end.

Liberal Democrats say that as long as the filibuster exists, Senate Republicans will be able to use it to block progress on important priorities, including addressing the climate emergency, voting rights and immigration.

Here’s why the filibuster is a problem for the chamber that likes to call itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

HISTORY

Although the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of filibusters, long-winded Senate speeches became an increasingly common tactic in the 19th century and captured the American imagination in Frank Capra’s 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” when Jimmy Stewart’s character spoke for more than a day.

Notoriously, they were used by southern senators who sought to block civil rights laws.

More recently in 2013 when Texas state Senator Wendy Davis spoke for 13 hours to try to block a bill imposing new restrictions on abortion.

The popular image of a lone lawmaker mounting an impassioned hours-long argument belies the reality in today’s Senate, where a perceived threat is often enough to initiate a filibuster and hold up a bill.

A filibuster can only be stopped if 60 senators vote to end debate in a process called cloture, a rule put in place in 1975.

A PROBLEM FOR DEMOCRATS

With just 50 senators, Democrats will not be able to overcome filibusters on their bills unless at least 10 Republicans vote with them.

But many Republicans are deeply skeptical of Democratic priorities and unlikely to help build supermajorities.

Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, say Democrats should work to produce bipartisan legislation instead of trying to end or change the filibuster. Even going so far as to threaten a “completely scorched earth” Senate…

MCCONNELL: "This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup. Nothing moving..."

President Joe Biden recently said he favors filibuster reform, not elimination.

CAN THE FILIBUSTER BE CHANGED?

There have already been changes, in addition to changing the number of votes required for cloture.

In 2013, Democrats removed the 60-vote threshold for voting on most nominees for administration jobs, apart from the Supreme Court, allowing them to advance on a simple majority vote.

In 2017, Republicans did the same thing for Supreme Court nominees.

Recently some centrist Democrats have joined ranks with liberals including Senator Jeff Merkley, who has long favored reforming the 60-vote threshold for legislation.

The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, has suggested the party should try bringing some bills with bipartisan appeal to the floor to see if they are filibustered.

If they can't get at least 60 votes, then the caucus could talk about possible modifications to the procedure.

But for now, at least two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, do not want to ditch the 60-vote threshold. Without them, the Senate’s number one Democrat Chuck Schumer does not have the majority needed to gut the rule.