The 60-Vote Myth

You see it all the time: You need 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate.

Not exactly. Under Senate rules–which can be changed by a majority vote–you need the consent of 3/5ths of the Senate to close debate on an issue; that’s 60 votes. To pass a bill, you need a majority of those present. Since Ted Kennedy is sick and Al Franken has not yet been seated, that’s 49 votes.

Is that an academic distinction? No, not really. Politically, voting against an emergency stimulus bill is very different from voting to block a vote on an emergency stimulus bill. Particularly if Majority Leader Harry Reid required filibusterers to actually hold the floor, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style, Republicans might find it a great deal harder to keep a 41-vote bloc together.

In any case, Americans are generally under-informed about the way their complex system works. Spelling out what’s going on, even if it takes an extra sentence, is preferable to a misleading and sometimes inaccurate shorthand.

Update: jhm in comments is correct in saying that it is not the debate cloture rule, but rather a Senate rule against deficit spending, that required a 3/5ths majority vote to pass the stimulus bill. Both are self-imposed requirements, adopted through majority vote, but the politics of standing up against deficit spending are different from standing up against the Senate voting.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.