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Filibuster, explained

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mitch McConnell expressed support for a supermajority filibuster at speaking engagement

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing to examine social media’s impact on homeland security, Sept. 14, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sinema says Americans prefer politicians who work across the aisle. The Arizona Democrat gave a forceful defense of her brand of bipartisanship Monday in a speech in Kentucky.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Monday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., spoke at the University of Louisville at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s invitation. To the surprise of her Democratic colleagues, she expressed her support for a tougher filibuster and said she believes the Senate should “restore the 60-vote threshold for the areas in which it has been eliminated already,” per The Washington Post.

What is a filibuster?

A filibuster, according to the US.. Senate website, is an “action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question.”

In practice, the Senate requires 51 votes to pass a bill after debate has ended. Before the floor can vote, however, it takes a 60-vote supermajority to cut off the debate (with notable exceptions), according to the Brennan Center. Senators enact a filibuster to prevent an issue from going to a vote.

Notable changes to the filibuster were enacted in 2013, when a Democratic majority exercised what was called the “nuclear option,” using a controversial parliamentary tactic to lower the 60-vote threshold to 51 for federal judgeships, per NPR.

In 2017, a Republican majority led by McConnell used the same “nuclear option” to exempt Supreme Court nominations from the filibuster, according to Brookings.

Filibuster in context

According to Thomas Jipping from the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, the filibuster is “a very important part of limiting government at least in the Senate,” and believes a “narrow majority should not be able to force its will on the very large minority anytime that it wants.”

One of the most notable critics of the filibuster, former President Barack Obama, told Politico that the filibuster is a “Jim Crow relic” that has been used to block necessary reforms.

According to the Brennan Center, “The relative stagnancy of Congress — which is in large part due to the filibuster — has pushed presidents to increase their use of executive power, which in turn often goes unchecked because of Congress’s inability to act.”

Sinema told the Kentucky crowd, “The best thing you can do for your child is to not give them everything they want. … We should restore the 60-vote threshold for areas in which it has been eliminated,” per CNN.