Mar
10
2009

How Many Votes Does It Take to Pass a Senate Bill?

US CapitolWriting about the Employee Free Choice Act, Melanie Trottman and Brody Mullins of the Wall Street Journal write (3/10/09):

At least six Senators who have voted to move forward with the so-called card-check proposal, including one Republican, now say they are opposed or not sure–an indication that Senate Democratic leaders are short of the 60 votes they need for approval.

It really is worth being specific on this: It does not take 60 votes to pass an ordinary bill in the Senate; it takes a majority of the senators voting. If everyone is present, it takes 51 votes, or 50 votes if the vice president votes to break the tie. Under the current rules of the Senate–which can be altered by a majority vote–it takes 60 votes to proceed to a vote on a bill when some senators want to continue debate forever, or filibuster.

It has not traditionally been the custom that every bill gets a filibuster and so requires 60 votes in order to pass; plenty of bills in the past have passed the Senate with fewer than 60 votes. In recent years, the filibuster has changed from an occasional gambit to a more routine part of the process. Since the Democrats took back the Senate after the 2006 elections, it has become almost a matter of course that a bill opposed by most of the minority party will have to overcome a filibuster in order to pass.

But that doesn't mean that a bill needs 60 votes to be approved; it means 41 senators can keep a bill from being voted on. The distinction is worth making, particularly since the ability of the minority to obstruct is dependent on the willingness of the majority to be obstructed.

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.