Writing 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.