When is a majority not enough – or will the Democrats abolish (or at least amend) the filibuster?

So the Democrats in the United States now hold the White House with Joe Biden and have a majority in the House of Representatives and a majority in the Senate (once Vice-President Kamala Harris uses her casting vote). So they should be able to progress their large and radical agenda, right?

If only American politics was so simple. The Senate has a provision called the filibuster which enables any Senator to block legislature effectively as long as he or she wishes. The only way to override a filibuster is with a vote of at least 60 which is 10 more than the Democrats hold in the Senate. But the filibuster is a rule that can technically be overcome by a simple majority and the Dems have that majority once one includes the Vice-President’s casting vote.

So why don’t the Democrats scrap the filibuster? It’s partly a matter of convention – the rule has existed for so long (it was created in 1806 in a limited form) that some think it is a fundamental part of American democracy. It’s partly self-interest – if the Dems abolish it now, the Republicans will not have to worry about it when they are next in control of the Senate. It’s partly because not all 50 Democratic Senators are willing to take what is seen as the nuclear option – moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona won’t back the move.

So what is to be done? Newly-installed President Joe Biden has drawn a distinction between how the filibuster used to work when he first became a Senator and how it has evolved since. In his day, a Senator had to mount the filibuster on the floor of the Senate by talking continuously. These days, enough senators (40) simply have to make known their opposition to the legislation in question. Biden has recently and publicly mooted that the Senate should return to the “talking filibuster”.

So watch this space …

More information on the filibuster here.


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