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Filibusters by Democrats Are Still Filibusters

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Please, national media: Call it a filibuster.

The New York Times has a perfectly fine curtain-raiser on the 114th Congress today, except for the clunker in this part:

Because the House has been in Republican hands since 2011, the real test comes in the Senate, where the new majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is armed with a 54-46 majority. He will still have to find a way to make legislation passed by the House attractive to enough Democrats to assemble the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles and send them to the president’s desk.

“Procedural obstacles”???? What the article is talking about are (likely) Democratic filibusters. Without a filibuster, any bill needs only a simple majority to pass the Senate. There’s no need for a supermajority in the Senate rules -- unless the minority makes the once extraordinary decision to filibuster. Only then does the majority need 60 votes to invoke cloture, which has become the standard way to try to defeat a filibuster.

It’s wrong to imply that the normal need for 60 is inherent in Senate rules and procedures, and not a response to tactics by the Senate minority. We don’t know if Democrats will filibuster everything the way Republicans have done for the last six years, but if they do reporters should call them out on it instead of pretending it isn’t happening.

Democrats might consider whether blanket filibusters are such a good idea in the first place. After all, anything they oppose can be vetoed by Barack Obama if it passes the Senate with 50-some votes (and the veto would presumably be sustained).

No, Democrats, even those sincerely against the filibuster, shouldn’t unilaterally disarm as long as Senate rules allow the minority to create a 60-vote chamber, but as long as they have a Democrat in the Oval Office, there’s no real damage done, and for whatever it’s worth it might help their efforts to turn elite neutral opinion against the filibuster. 

But so far as the media is concerned: If it’s a filibuster, call it a filibuster.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at