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Senate filibusters, unanimous consent and cloture

The U.S. Senate has unique powers like ratifying treaties and confirming appointments. It uses a complex process, including committee hearings, debates, and voting. A simple majority can't always pass legislation due to rules like unanimous consent and filibusters. To end a filibuster and vote, 60 senators must agree, except for appointments which require a simple majority.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we are going to do in this video is discuss the United States Senate. We're gonna focus not only on areas where the Senate has special influence where the House of Representatives does not, but we'll also focus on how the Senate actually conducts business. And as we'll see the processes and the rules that the Senate uses makes it more difficult for a simple majority to do what they want. So in terms of special influence, only the Senate, not the House of Representatives, is involved in ratifying treaties. So the executive, the president, they can negotiate a treaty but it does not become effective, binding, from a United States point of view until it is ratified by the United States Senate. And it has to be ratified by a 2/3 supermajority. And this is one of the reasons why it is viewed that the Senate has more influence on foreign relations than the House of Representatives. The other area that the Senate is involved is in confirming appointments. These could be appointments to the president's cabinet. These could also be judiciary appointments. It could be to lower federal courts, or to the United States Supreme Court. The House of Representatives once again is not involved. But to appreciate just how things go through the Senate, whether we're talking about appointments, or even if we're talking about general legislation, let's remind ourselves the overall process. So let's just say that this is a piece of legislation right over here. It could have been drafted by a staffer for a senator, maybe with help from some constituents or from some special interest groups, maybe some lobbyists, and it will be introduced to an appropriate committee by a senator or by a group of senators. For example if this legislation is about the armed services, it would go to the Armed Services Committee. Now the committee could decide to have some hearings around the legislation. Maybe they bring in the Secretary of Defense, maybe they bring in some military leaders, and ask them questions about their views about whether the legislation is a good idea or not, or they just want general context. Then they might also have some debate. And then they might decide to vote on that legislation. And if that vote passes, if they get a majority in that committee, then it will go to the Senate Floor. Now before we even talk about what happens on the floor of the Senate, because that's where things get really interesting, it's important to point out that even within committee, the leadership has a lot of influence. And the leadership is generally controlled by the majority party. Because the leadership might decide that hey you know what, they're not interested in this bill. So instead of going through this process here, they might just decide to table the bill, which kind of just puts it into a limbo. But let's talk about the reality where it does get voted on, it does get a majority, and it goes to the Senate floor. Now what's going to happen next in the Senate floor is a debate over that bill, and I'm writing debate in caps because the Senate is famous for its debates. And the whole idea of ending a debate so that you can vote is critical inside of the Senate. In order to end a debate, you need something called unanimous consent, unanimous consent, which is exactly what it sounds like. It has to be unanimous. All of the senators, all 100, have to agree, have to consent to ending the debate so that you can get to a vote. And once you get to the vote, if we're talking about a general piece of legislation, if we're talking about an appointment, then you just need a simple majority. So you just need 51 votes to pass. Now some of you might be saying wait hold on a second. I've always heard that in the Senate, in order to do anything, you need a supermajority. You might've heard the 60 vote number. The reason why you hear that is because many times the folks who do not wanna have a vote, especially if they think that the vote is going to go against them, they will decide to not consent to having a vote. And when you don't consent to having a vote, that is known as a hold. And so that one senator or it could be a group of senators that say hey I'm not giving my consent to go to a vote. I want to keep debating on it. They are placing a hold. And this protracted debate is often known as a filibuster, which is a every strange word. It was originally in reference to pirates, but it came to mean folks who were trying to hold up the legislation process. And it's become a mechanism by which the folks who don't want the vote, who might be against the bill, who might be in the minority, they might not have enough votes to defeat the bill, might still try to hold things up. Now the reason why you heard about 60 votes is because generally speaking, that is how you stop a filibuster. If you wanna stop a filibuster, you need to do something called cloture, or another way of thinking about it is closure of the debate so that you can get to a vote. And the reason why you hear 60 votes is for general legislation you need 60 votes in order to have cloture. So even though you only need 51 votes for the legislation to pass once you vote on it, to even get to that point you need 60 votes. And this is why you hear that for legislation to actually get through the Senate, you need 60 votes. Now there is an exception to this, and that exception is around appointments. Prior to 2013, in order to have cloture for an appointment, you also needed 60 votes. But in 2013 it was decided that for non-Supreme Court appointments you only needed 51 votes for cloture. And then in 2017 this was extended also to Supreme Court appointments. And so now for appointments, you only need 51 votes for cloture to end a filibuster, and so and of course you only need 51 votes for the confirmation. So functionally you just need a simple majority now in the Senate for confirmations. But legislation you need 60 votes, and of course for things like treaties you need a 2/3 supermajority. To convict someone in an impeachment, say the president, you need a 2/3 supermajority. And like the House, if we're talking about overriding a presidential veto or amending the Constitution, you need a 2/3 majority. Now what I've just talked about, it isn't extensive, it isn't exhaustive of all of the processes in the Senate, but hopefully it gives you appreciation of, one, areas where the Senate has special influence, and also how the rules and processes of the Senate can be leveraged by either the majority parties or minority parties in order to get things done. And how in the Senate because of things like unanimous consent, it is harder for a simple majority to do whatever they want.