What Is a Filibuster, and Other Questions Answered as as Biden Calls for Changes in Order to Pass Voter Rights

President Joe Biden makes an impassioned speech about voters laws and possible changes to the filibuster in Georgia.
President Joe Biden makes an impassioned speech about voters laws and possible changes to the filibuster in Georgia.Getty

Meanwhile, Republicans threaten to cause further inconvenience if filibuster rules are changed.

President Joe Biden is supporting a push to change filibuster rules in the Senate, calling it a tradition that “has been weaponized and abused.” This comes as Democrats attempt to pass an ambitious plan to pass voting rights protections as some Republican senators block its passage at any cost.

“The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart,” Biden said in a Tuesday speech in Atlanta. “To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of Senators from blocking action on voting rights.”

Here’s what we know:

What is a Filibuster?

In short, a filibuster is a procedural method in which someone in opposition to a proposed piece of legislation delays a decision being made or prevents it from passing entirely by prolonging debates, oftentimes by engaging in long, almost never-ending speeches.

It is sometimes known as “talking a bill to death.”

History of the Filibuster

Filibusters have been used throughout history, with one of the earliest known incidents occurring on a debate floor in Ancient Rome. Filibustering was also common throughout U.S. history, with one of the first examples dating back to 1789, when a senator remarked in a diary that the design of the Senate was so one could “talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed,” according to the Senate website.

“Senators traditionally used to have to stand and speak at their desks for however long it took, and sometimes it took hours,” Biden explained in his remarks. “And when they sat down, if no one immediately stood up, anyone could call for a vote or the debate ended.”

While the Senate website goes on to claim that the filibuster was a mainstay in the Senate from its conception, historians say it was not until 1856 when the Senate established the right of unlimited debate, the Washington Post reported.

The first filibusters that successfully derailed legislation occurred years later, in the 1880s, according to the Washington Post, and they became more and more prevalent throughout the 19th century into the early 20th century.

In 1917, with the encouragement of President Woodrow Wilson, the cloture rule was introduced, which allows debate to end and a vote to be possible as long as a supermajority of senators voted in favor of it. Eventually, the cloture rule was changed so just 60 votes were needed to end a filibuster.

How Does a Filibuster Work?

While senators were originally required to speak on the chamber floor continuously in order for conduct a filibuster, the chamber changed its rules in the 1970s, so that a filibuster can occur while the chamber continued discussing other topics.

The change, in addition to a growing division between Democrats and Republicans over the years, has led to filibusters becoming more common, and the center of much criticism.

“The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship,” Biden said in his remarks. “But it’s also been used to obstruct … The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart.”

Biden added that the filibuster was used as a tactic 154 times in the last year.

Why Now?

The filibuster is the center of new debate in the Democrats’ latest attempt to pass protections for voting rights across the country – including the Freedom to Vote Act, which would establish nationwide election standards, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which strives to prevent discrimination against voters of color.

But, like previous attempts, the legislation is being blocked by Republicans.

What Does Biden Want to See Happen?

While Biden does not explicitly call for the elimination of the filibuster altogether, he is calling for filibuster rules in the Senate to be changed “whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of Senators from blocking actions on voting rights,” he said in his address.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set a Jan. 17 deadline for the Senate to vote on a rules change if the legislation continues to be blocked by Republicans.

"If Republicans continue to hijack the rules of the Senate to prevent voting rights from happening … we must consider the necessary steps we can take so the Senate can adapt and act," Schumer said.

How Republicans Are Reacting

Republicans, unsurprisingly, are firing back.

"If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said ahead of Biden’s Georgia address.

He also accused Schumer of bullying senators, and “silencing the voices of millions of citizens so that one political party can take over our nation's elections from the top down."

Meanwhile, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who previously said he is open to modest filibuster reforms, told reporters that to change filibuster rules will be “to break the opportunity for the minority to participate completely,” the Washington Post reported.

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