On Cloture


In the United States Senate, it takes only 51 votes to pass a piece of legislation.  That’s right–any piece of legislation regarding any topic or issue under the sun needs only a bare majority of support.

So then why do we keep hearing that the Democratic majority needs 60 votes before they can move legislation forward?

Well, it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture, which ends debate on a piece of legislation and lets the bill to be brought to a final vote for passage. The philosophy behind the 60-vote margin is that, if a  significant enough number of Senators want to continue debating a bill, they should be allowed to, which is perfectly sensible.

But the minority often uses cloture votes to block legislation, which we all know as filibustering. As long as they can get a substantial enough minority to vote against cloture, the minority can block legislation indefinitely, even if they don’t have enough votes to defeat the legislation outright.

Cloture is a procedural vote, nothing more–it signals that a Senator believes that there has been sufficient debate on a piece of legislation and that it’s time to bring it up for a floor vote.  Voting for cloture is not an indication of support for the final bill, nor should it be seen that way.

All too often, though, cloture votes are used as proxies for whether or not a Senator supports a particular bill.  That’s problematic because it sets an unusually-high 60-vote bar for the passage of legislation, instead of the standard 51-vote bar. That isn’t how the Senate is supposed to operate–it was designed so that a simple majority could pass legislation.

I’m not advocating the elimination of the filibuster, but I want the Democratic leadership to put their foot down on cloture–they need to start getting their caucus to vote for cloture on major legislation regardless of whether or not individual Senators plan to vote for or against the legislation. There is nothing intellectually inconsistent with voting for cloture but against final passage; there is nothing wrong saying that no more debate is needed on a bill but that you don’t plan on voting for it.

So the difference between cloture and final passage needs to be made clear and the procedural–not ideological–nature of the cloture vote needs to be stressed.

Fortunately, Senator Bernie Sanders is going down that road.  But the Democratic leadership needs to follow his lead, lest we end up with a series of embarrassing cloture votes on major legislation in the years to come:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), called on the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress to ensure that party members agree unanimously to support cloture on legislation that would revamp the nation’s health care system. Democratic senators on the fence, he added, could still oppose the bill. But at the very least they should be required to let the legislation come to an up-or-down vote.


“I think that politically that is something everybody can handle. You say, ‘Look, I think there should be a vote. I’m gonna vote against it for A, B and C reasons. But I think the process has to move forward and it’s unacceptable that Republicans keep trying to stop everything,” said the Vermont Independent, who added that “The White House could play a very important part in this process”

“I think it would be great if we could have 100 senators voting for this, but what is important is the product that you get, not bipartisanship,” Sanders went on. “So we should ask Republicans to support it. If they choose not to they do so at their own political risk. The focus should be on a strong bill trying to get Republican support rather than a weak bipartisan bill.

[Emphasis mine]