The Filibuster Debate

GWEN IFILL: As the Senate braces for a showdown this week over the president’s judicial nominees, all eyes are on the filibuster — that time-honored technique of essentially talking an issue to death. Advise and consent, delay and debate, all of these concepts are on the table. But what is the filibuster supposed to do?

For that, we turn to two political scientists. Sarah Binder, an associate professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Jeremy Mayer, an assistant professor in the school of public policy at George Mason University. Sarah Binder, we think we know what a filibuster is whether we’re thinking of Jimmy Stewart or Huey Long, or Strom Thurmond. Tell us, what is it really supposed to be?

SARAH BINDER: Well, the way the Senate has developed today a filibuster is simply extended debate. And the Senate doesn’t have a rule that allows the majority to cut off debate. So under today’s rules, unless you have a supermajority of 60 votes, that extended debate keeps going.

GWEN IFILL: But why is it that it’s now a big deal? Hasn’t this always been the way it’s supposed to be?

SARAH BINDER: Well, some people believe that the filibuster was a part of the framers’ design for the Senate. In fact, there’s very little evidence that the framers anticipated filibusters, but it came out an accidental change in the rules in the early 1800’s. Since then, when senators realized they had could have extended debates, gradually they began to exploit the rules to serve their own personal purposes.

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