What Is the Filibuster? Definition, Senate History and Why it May Change

As President Joe Biden looks to press on with key planks of his policy agenda, Democratic lawmakers have their sights set on a contentious Senate rule blamed for obstructing serious reform: the filibuster.

Although the party is split on whether the filibuster should be abolished or reformed, even the most ardent defenders of the rule in the Democratic caucus are now making noises about changing the measure.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a moderate in the party, said it needed to be more "painful" for senators to use the filibuster to block legislation, arguing that the process had become too "comfortable" over time.

However, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN) both came out in support of abolishing the rule altogether last week, as it became clear that the measure could potentially get in the way of a new voting rights bill.

Here is a rundown of the filibuster, its history, and why it may change.

The U.S. Capitol Building
Senate Democrats have pushed for the filibuster to be reformed or abolished as they seek to push ahead with President Joe Biden's agenda. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

What is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a procedure that allows a minority group of lawmakers to delay or outright block the passage of a majority-backed bill by endlessly debating it, exploiting the rule set out under cloture—another parliamentary process.

Cloture requires at least 60 senators to vote in favor of ending debate on legislation—effectively meaning one party needs to hold a supermajority in the upper chamber to pass measures opposed by a minority group of at least 41 senators.

A Brookings Institution report published last year found that the use of the filibuster and the cloture rule had become more common since the turn of the century.

According to the think tank, more cloture motions have been filed in the last 20 years than in the preceding 80 years.

History of the filibuster

The cloture rule that enables the filibuster tactic originally required a two-thirds supermajority to block endless debate, but the upper chamber voted to reduce the limit to three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes, in 1975.

In the past decade, both Republicans and Democrats have repealed the 60-vote cloture rule, albeit temporarily or in a limited capacity, to prevent court appointments from being blocked by their opponents.

Democrats eliminated the filibuster for various administration and federal court appointments put forward by former President Barack Obama in 2013. At the time, the move was widely called the "nuclear" option.

Four years later, Republican emulated the move, blocking the use of the filibuster against then-President Donald Trump's Supreme Court appointments.

Why the filibuster may change

A number of Senate Democrats have called for the rule to be reformed or scrapped altogether, particularly as it appears possible that an expansion of voting rights put forward by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives could be quashed by the filibuster.

The bill would restrict state-level voter ID laws, expand mail voting operations, and enable automatic voter registration—removing barriers for some communities having their say at the ballot box.

In a video statement released Sunday, House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) said Democrats had to take action against the filibuster being used to curb the proposed reforms.

"We must not allow a modern day filibuster to do what filibusters of old did - deny voting rights, deny civil rights, and yes, deny equal access and opportunity. Let's not repeat the errors of the past."