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What is Cloture in the Senate?

How do you feel about cloture motions?

by Countable | 3.15.19

Congress is well-known for its use of obscure parliamentary language and tools, so to help you understand what that thing your lawmakers are talking about on C-SPAN2 here’s a breakdown of one of the Senate’s favorite procedural tools ― the cloture motion.

What is a cloture motion?

A cloture motion is a procedural motion that, if adopted, limits further debate on the matter at hand. It allows the majority to defeat efforts by the minority to delay or obstruct proceedings on a matter by showing the matter has the support of a super-majority. Versions of cloture motions are also used by legislative bodies in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Senate first adopted its cloture motion in 1917 at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, which required a two-thirds majority of those voting to limit debate. It was first used on November 15, 1919, to defeat a filibuster on the Treaty of Versailles ― the peace treaty which concluded World War I.

How do cloture motions work in the Senate?

When the Senate majority leader is prepared to bring a bill up for a final vote, they file a cloture motion on the floor to begin the process.

Senate rules require that a cloture motion has to “ripen” for one full day before it can receive a vote unless there is unanimous consent to hold a vote sooner. In practice this means that absent unanimous consent, a hypothetical cloture motion filed on a Tuesday would spend Wednesday ripening before a vote on Thursday.

A three-fifths vote is required for cloture to be “invoked” and the motion to succeed. Once cloture is invoked, further debate on the bill or nomination is generally limited to 30 hours before a final vote. If it fails to get 60 votes, the Senate moves on to the next item on the agenda.

When a cloture motion fails and the Senate majority leader wants to bring the bill or nomination back up for another vote at a later date, they have to change their vote from “yea” to “nay”. This is because the Senate’s rules require that only a senator on the prevailing side of a failed cloture vote is eligible to move to reconsider the cloture motion.

How has cloture changed in the Senate?

Prior to 1975, cloture motions required the support of two-thirds of voting senators to invoke cloture, but the rule was changed to three-fifths of “duly chosen and sworn” senators. This means that 60 votes are required to invoke cloture when the Senate has its full complement of 100 senators, although if there were two vacancies 59 would be required, and so forth.

The use of cloture motions has risen dramatically in recent decades. From its creation in 1917 to 1970, the Senate only voted on 49 cloture motions (eight of which succeeded). From 1971-1974 that spiked to 51 votes on cloture motions (13 of which were invoked), prompting the 1975 cloture reform, but that failed to stem its use. The last three Congresses (2013-2018) combined for a total of 509 votes on cloture motions, with cloture invoked 404 times.

In 2013, the threshold to invoke cloture on all presidential appointments other than a Supreme Court nominee was lowered to a simple majority (the so-called “nuclear option”). In 2017 the simple majority requirement was extended to Supreme Court nominees as well.


— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / dkfielding)

Countable

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