Good Question: How Does A Filibuster Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The United States Senate is expected to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee to the nation’s highest court Friday.

The fight over Judge Neil Gorsuch ended Thursday with Republicans invoking the so-called “nuclear option.” That means a Supreme Court candidate only needs a simple majority to move ahead, not the traditional 60 votes to overcome a filibuster like the one mounted by Democrats today.

For now, a filibuster can still be used to block legislation. So how do they work? Good Question.

Filibuster is a Dutch word that means “pirating the parliamentary process,” which is exactly what politicians are trying to do.

“If they don’t approve of an issue or agree with a measure, it’s their way of stopping it from going forward,” Mound-Westonka High School civics teacher Robert Paul said.

Paul says minority parties in the Senate use a filibuster to take over the floor and talk for hours on end. In the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart’s character filibustered for 24 hours. Eighteen years later, a South Carolina senator did it for real.

“The longest one ever is Strom Thurmond’s back in 1957 to show his opposition during the 1957 Civil Rights Bill,” Paul said.

There are rules involved.

“You can’t sit down — you have to stay standing,” Paul said. “The only thing you are supposed to take in is either milk or water.”

To fill the time, senators sometimes stray from politics.

“They can read from the phone book as they have in the past, or share their grandmother’s recipe for chili,” Paul said.

The only way to end a filibuster is with a procedure called “cloture.” Normally, sixty votes are needed to stop it. But as we found out, Republican senators used the “nuclear option” to get Judge Neil Gorsuch’s supreme court nomination.

“So instead of needing 60 votes for cloture, they moved it down to 51, mere majority,” Paul said.

A senator who is filibustering can leave the floor, but they have to yield to someone else who supports their cause until they get back.

Paul said filibusters don’t often work and are used more for showmanship. He added that the house is much larger and has different rules, that’s why you won’t see a filibuster attempt in Congress.

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