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The Democratic Push For Filibuster Reform


We're going to talk again about the debate over the filibuster. That's the term used for moves used to delay action in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this week, President Biden endorsed the idea of implementing a talking filibuster in the U.S. Senate. This would mean that senators would need to physically talk for hours in the Senate chamber to try to stop a vote on a bill.

Now, the filibuster has become a flashpoint for Democrats who say there is gridlock on the horizon if it is not changed or dropped. For more on this, we called NPR's Domenico Montanaro to tell us more.

Domenico, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So the Senate filibuster's something people probably know about from TV or the movies or maybe 7th grade, and they may think it is already a requirement that you have to stand up and talk for it to happen. But that's not necessarily the case. So, as briefly as you can, what does the filibuster - whole filibuster process look like now?

MONTANARO: Right now, all that has to be done is a staffer can simply send an email for a senator, and you can hold up legislation just like that and say that you've invoked cloture, which is the phrase to say that this is the process by which you're going to need 60 votes to basically use the filibuster. So it's not a talking filibuster. It's just basically pressing a button to get it to be to a point where the other side need 60 votes to pass anything.

MARTIN: So a number of Democrats have said that this has to stop. What's their argument?

MONTANARO: They say that it's too easy for Republicans to obstruct their agenda. They can't get legislation through now that the COVID relief bill passed. You know, things have gotten so partisan that it's nearly impossible to compromise on anything. You know, this - supposedly, the filibuster is created to, you know, engender some degree of compromise.

But that's really not how it's worked at all because you have such ideologically different senators. You know, you have pacts on one side or the other that are really ideologically together, and there isn't this big, you know, group of moderates in the middle.

MARTIN: And this week, President Biden says he supports the push for a talking filibuster. As we said, that means that senators would actually need to talk if they want to delay whatever action is taking place. Is it surprising that the president is willing to take a look at this? I think a lot of people thought, look - he served most of his adult life in the Senate. I think a lot of people looked at him as an institutionalist and thought he would never want to change those rules. So what do you think changed?

MONTANARO: I think things do look a little bit different when you become president because you want to get a bold agenda through. And if you're looking on the horizon, and you see this gridlock and see the potential for having no other big deals passed or big legislation passed, then that, you know, is difficult for a president to look and see that he's going to feel like that he's feckless, and that's not something that he wants.

And I do think that seeing the popularity of the COVID relief bill, despite Democrats passing it without any Republican support and doing this end run around the filibuster, I think that emboldened Biden to say, you know, if we can pass measures that are popular with the American people, then it's not going to matter what the process is. It matters making a difference in people's lives. And if you do that, then the American people will support it.

MARTIN: Speaking of the Republicans, the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has pushed back hard against changing the rules. What's their argument against changing it?

MONTANARO: Well, McConnell, you know, delivered a pretty strong threat. You know, he said that this would lead to a scorched earth Senate. He threatened that when the pendulum swings back his way, where Republicans wind up in the majority, that they would push legislation that Democrats would find odious, like anti-union legislation or anti-abortion legislation. They take the threat seriously from McConnell, but they kind of shrug it off and say, really, how can things get much worse?

MARTIN: So, going forward, what's the timeline for how and when this could be decided?

MONTANARO: Well, it's going to be all about the vote and whether Democrats have it and how strongly leadership wants to push for this. But they have to figure out where people like Manchin and Sinema really are on this and what exactly they will support, you know, because you're still going to have 60 votes as a requirement to stop someone from talking and advancing that legislation. So they're not talking about reducing that. It's still going to be a pretty high hurdle. And we'll see if they wind up pushing for it in the coming days or weeks.

MARTIN: That is NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico, thank you so much for joining us.

MONTANARO: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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