Democrats May Consider Rule Change to Ease Senate Votes

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By Chris Opfer

Sept. 21 — At least some Senate Democrats would like to change voting rules to make it easier to pass minimum wage and other bills should they regain control of the chamber and Hillary Clinton win the White House next year.

If they take control of the Senate, Democrats are expected to consider scrapping a rule that requires 60 votes to avoid a filibuster. That restriction has made it difficult to move bills when one party owns only a narrow majority.

“If Republicans start to use their minority to block every nominee and every one of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, then I think it will become an important topic,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 21.

“It’s not something we’re talking about yet, but I remain a supporter of it. I think the vast majority of our caucus supports it and Democrat senators who have been the biggest opponents of it won’t be here in 2017.”

The filibuster rule has thwarted a number of bills in recent years, including some related to labor and employment. A measure to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 per hour in 2014 stalled in the Senate on a 54-42 vote, and Republicans repeatedly delayed votes on bills that would have extended the emergency unemployment benefits program the same year.

A two-thirds vote is typically required to change a Senate rule such as the filibuster voting requirement. In 2013, however, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used procedural maneuvering called the “nuclear option” to scrap the 60-vote threshold for certain judicial and executive branch nominations with just a simple majority of lawmakers agreeing to the rule change.

Democrats need to pick up five seats in the November elections to regain a majority in the Senate. Clinton leads Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by 2 percentage points among voters nationwide, according to a Sept. 20 poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov.

Double-Edged Sword

It was all the way back in 1917 that Senate lawmakers adopted a rule requiring two-thirds of the chamber to vote to end debate on a measure before it can be considered in a final up-or-down vote. The threshold was reduced to 60 votes in 1975 but remains a source of debate among lawmakers.

The primary argument against the rule is that a majority vote should win the day. Critics say the 60-vote requirement makes it difficult for lawmakers to move legislation in a chamber dominated by narrow voting margins.

“Most legislative bodies operate with a majority vote,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who supports scrapping the rule, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 21. “We’re the only ones—as far as I know—that require 60 votes to get anything done.”

Murphy and Blumenthal said eliminating the cloture requirement would make it more difficult for a potential Republican minority to hold up legislation. Still, the rule also operates as a check of sorts against whichever party happens to be in power at the time.

“I think it would be the biggest institutional mistake, maybe in modern Senate history,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sept. 21 of eliminating the rule. “I don’t doubt some of them are thinking that, but they should be careful what they wish for,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

When some Republicans discussed eliminating the filibuster rule last year, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) warned the move could threaten state right-to-work laws in the event Democrats seized control of Congress. “Without a Senate filibuster, you can kiss state right-to-work laws goodbye,” Alexander told his colleagues in remarks on the chamber floor.

Right-to-work laws ban “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at

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