Battles around the filibuster, which has been the defining feature of the Senate legislative process for more than two centuries, are all basically the same. The majority gets frustrated at not getting its way every time, and the minority trumpets the necessity of checks and balances. Pushed by the left, Senate Democrats are talking about abolishing the minority right of extended debate they once defended.
In either the Senate or the House, debate on a bill must be closed before the chamber can vote on it. In the House, a simple majority can do both. If members stick together, even a slim majority can pass any legislation. But in the Senate, this is different. Before a simple majority can pass a pending bill, a supermajority is needed to end debate. The result is that a group of members in the minority can still block a final vote to defeat a bill. A failed attempt to end debate is known as the filibuster.
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Why the difference in process? The answer is checks and balances. The framers believed that government would become overly powerful, and authority overly concentrated, without any limits. The president can veto legislation from Congress. A supermajority of the Senate must ratify the treaties negotiated by the president. Bills to raise revenue must originate in the House. Passing legislation needs approval of the same bill by both the Senate and House. You get the idea about this.
During the first term of President Bush, Senate Democrats had argued the minority right to extended debate was on this list of checks and balances. Majority Leader Charles Schumer spoke on the Senate floor in 2003, and he used an analogy attributed to the founding fathers. “The Senate is a cooling saucer,” Schumer said. Just as hot tea can be cooled in a saucer, hot politics can be cooled by Senate deliberation.
A week later, Schumer said, “Our Constitution says that the Senate ought to be the cooling saucer.” It does not say that, however, he was noting that extended debate was an integral part of how our government in general, and the legislative branch in particular, is designed to work. He drove this point home as he claimed the filibuster “is part of the hallowed process around here of the founding fathers saying that the Senate is the cooling saucer. We do not work as quickly as the House. We are not as restricted as the House. That is how it was intended to be.”
Schumer spoke about this yet again in 2005, noting how protection of the minority, including the right to extended debate, is a part of the process. Schumer said Senate rules “by the design of the founding fathers, written into the Constitution, talk about the Senate as a preserve of the minority. The founding fathers called it the cooling saucer.”
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Another Senate Democrat spoke about this the next day. “The Senate has embodied the brilliance of our founding fathers with creating an intricate system of checks and balances.” The framers “sought not to ensure simple majority rule, but to allow minority views” and “to have an enduring role in the Senate to check the excesses of the majority.”
Joe Biden was the member who offered this civics lesson. A month later, he said abolishing the filibuster would be “a power grab by the majority party.” His advice could be useful in the same conflict today. “If anyone doubts what I am saying, I suggest you ask yourself a rhetorical question. Why for the first time since 1789 is the Senate attempting to change the rule of unlimited debate?” That is a great question.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 2/1/21