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What is the filibuster and how can it be changed or eliminated?

Senate rules require most bills to receive the support of at least 60 members but President Biden wants to make an exception to codify abortion rights.

Democrats look to alter Senate filibuster rules

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which guarantees abortion rights in the United States, has thrown the issue of the Senate filibuster back into the spotlight.

Speaking at the NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday, President Biden said that he would support codifying abortion rights in law, but admitted that significant changes would likely have to be made to the filibuster rules.

“If the filibuster gets in the way, it’s like voting rights,” Biden said, adding that there should be an “exception to the filibuster for this action to deal with the Supreme Court decision”.

The filibuster generally means that legislation must receive the support of at least 60 members of the 100-seat Senate to be passed, something that makes Biden’s hopes of securing abortion rights almost impossible.

What is the filibuster?

The filibuster stems from a 19th century Senate rule which essentially allowed members to prevent a bill being passed by simply continuing to talk until the chamber’s time had elapsed. Debate is limited in the Senate so the filibuster allows members to derail the passage of bills, unless there is a 60-vote supermajority willing to stop them doing so.

The record for the longest filibuster speech remains Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1957 epic, when he spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to prevent passage of a major civil rights bill. More recently Republican Sen. Ted Cruz spoke for more than 21 hours in 2013 in opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act proposals, more commonly known as Obamacare.

However under recent rules, senators do not even need to talk for the entire period of time to enact a filibuster. Simply registering their intention to do so is enough to block the bill and the Senate must move on.

Can the Senate filibuster be altered?

The Democrats currently have a narrow majority in the Senate, where the chamber is split 50/50 but they have the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. However this means that they require ten Republican member to cross the aisle if they are to pass legislation without the threat of the filibuster.

However there have been numerous changes in the past to delineate certain topics which require just a simple majority to dismiss a filibuster. In 2013 Democrats removed the 60-vote threshold for the confirmation of many administration jobs that require the Senate’s consent.

Four years later the Republicans did the same for Supreme Court nominees, allowing them to confirm a new justice with just 50 votes. This allowed them to secure a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court.

Already this year Biden has supported a carve-out for the filibuster rule to allow legislation on voting rights to be passed. Now, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, his comments at the NATO conference make clear that he is willing to support a similar exception that would allow abortion rights to be codified into law.


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