The Senate, the power of the minority and the nuclear option

Editor's note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.

THE ISSUE: President Trump will have to engage with both parties in Congress to achieve his legislative agenda even though Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

In the Senate, the rules of the game really favor the minority party in many ways.


  • Currently, the Republican Party controls the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.
  • During a period of unified party control, House rules limit the power of the minority party to challenge or derail the majority party’s agenda.
  • In the Senate, the rules of the game offer the minority party the chance to challenge, delay and sometimes derail the majority party agenda. Debate rules require 60 votes—and often unanimous consent—to call up legislative measures for a vote.
  • The current majority party has 52 votes, meaning that leaders require consent or votes from the minority party.
  • If the Senate fails to reach full agreement, the majority leader can file cloture, but most cloture votes require 60 votes.
  • The Senate does not have a “germaneness rule.” In most cases, there is no requirement for an amendment to be tightly related to the bill on the floor. This allows the minority party to change the agenda and force senators to cast controversial votes that might fracture the majority party.
  • By exploiting the rules to block the majority, however, the minority might provoke the majority party to retaliate by “going nuclear” to ban the filibuster. That means only 51 votes would be needed to kill minority party obstruction.
  • The nuclear option does not change the Senate rulebook; it allows the majority to reinterpret the rules to their party’s advantage.
  • The “nuclear” designation comes from the expectation that the other party will be upset and find other ways to make tasks very difficult for the majority party.