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How many senators does it take…

- January 29, 2008

With increasing frequency, congressional observers refer to the “sixty-vote” Senate. Lacking a rule that would allow a simple majority to vote to end debate and bring the chamber to a vote, the Senate instead relies on its Rule 22 — otherwise known as the cloture rule — to end debate. If 60 senators — three-fifths of the chamber — vote to invoke cloture, the chamber moves to a vote on the underlying amendment, motion, or bill.

I’ve been curious about reports that cloture voting is at an all-time high in the Senate. So I ginned up the simple graph below that shows the average number of cloture motions filed per month, reaching back to 1973. Not only did Senate leaders rely more often on cloture last year than ever before, the chamber’s reliance on cloture increased exponentially. No wonder a House member joked last year (was it really a joke?) that it takes 60 senators to vote to order pizza. (Because I grew up in New Haven, the home of truly awe-inspring pizza, I do not take pizza jokes lightly.)


Why the surge in cloture motions? Senate Democrats blame Republican filibusters, and argue that GOP obstruction aims to derail the Democrats’ agenda. Republicans accuse Democrats of jumping the gun on cloture before measures have been fully debated. The truth likely falls somewhere in between. Still, roughly half of the cloture motions were filed on measures related to Iraq or other Democratic priorities. It seems quite plausible that Republicans would prefer to block, rather than vote on, a wide range of Democratic initiatives. Of course, as the chart shows, Democrats did their fair share of filibustering when Republicans controlled the Senate in recent years. A recent Brookings report provides a fuller assessment of the arguments and evidence here.