Published 11:42 AM EDT Oct 5, 2018
Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court shined a spotlight on how the Senate works, but the debate is steeped in unfamiliar terms: filibuster, cloture, unanimous consent.
Here is a guide to simplify what some of these terms mean and how they apply.
FILIBUSTER: Senate debate is typically unlimited until senators unanimously agreed to end the chit-chat on a bill or a nomination, or until they vote to end debate. The origin of the term is somewhat disputed, but the official Senate history says it stems from a Dutch term for "pirate."
The most dramatic way this plays out is if a lone senator stands on the floor speaking until overcome with exhaustion, as was portrayed in the Frank Capra movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
This still happens occasionally. And the words don’t matter. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, read from “Green Eggs and Ham” during a 21-hour marathon in September 2013 against President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. The filibuster record was held by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
But such episodes are rare. More common is that senators threaten a filibuster and a vote is held to end debate.
CLOTURE: When the Senate votes to limit debate, it’s called invoking cloture. The parliamentary move under Senate Rule XXII is somewhat counter-intuitive because ending debate sounds bad for a bill or a nomination.
But invoking cloture is what schedules a final vote on a bill or nomination. Failing to invoke cloture means the debate keeps running endlessly.
In 1975, the Senate agreed to reduce the number of votes required for cloture from 67 to 60 out of 100 senators. Despite making it easier to end debate, use of the filibuster has remained contentious. President Donald Trump and others have complained about the lack of action in the Senate – because a minority can prevent action on a specific bill or nomination.
Given this frustration, Senate Democrats agreed in November 2013 to change the rule to require a simple majority to invoke cloture when debating nominations to the executive branch or the judges other than for the Supreme Court. This unblocked a logjam of dozens of waiting nominees.
Senate Republicans then extended the change in April 2017 to the Supreme Court. This is why Kavanaugh’s supporters needed just a 51-49 vote Friday to end the debate.
UNANIMOUS CONSENT: The Senate can always agree to take action or ignore a rule by unanimous consent. Nearly everything done in the Senate is by unanimous consent, whether deciding what time to convene the next day or deciding which bill to debate. It’s not always obvious, but the floor leader must ask for unanimous consent, or UC, to move to each order of business.
The term might come up now that the Senate voted to limit debate on Kavanaugh’s nomination. After invoking cloture, the Senate will have up to 30 hours to debate before a final vote. But senators could agree by unanimous consent not to use all that time. This could allow a vote late Friday or early Saturday, rather than waiting the full 30 hours after the 10:30 a.m. vote.
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