Strictly speaking, the filibuster is a legislative tool used in the United States Senate to block or delay legislation. Senate rules allow a Senator (or Senators) to speak (debate) on the floor for as long as they wish unless three-fifths of the Senators present vote to invoke “cloture,” which simply means bringing the debate to a close. Bills cannot be voted on until debate is closed, so unless 60 Senators vote for cloture on a debate, the bill is essentially dead.
Most of us today take the filibuster as a given, but it is not; Senate rules can be changed. In 2013, Senate Democrats changed Senate rules and removed the ability to filibuster executive and judicial nominees, with the exception of Supreme Court nominees. They did this in response to Republican filibusters of President Obama’s nominees. In 2017, Republicans removed the ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominees, paving the way for all three of President Trump’s nominees to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Today, many Democrats are calling on the Senate to change the rules again and get rid of the filibuster so the Senate can pass legislation on election security judicial reform, voting rights, gun safety, D.C. statehood, climate change and other legislation that the majority of Americans support. Some argue that getting rid of the filibuster can backfire if Democrats lose the Senate in 2022. However, if the Senate eliminates the filibuster with the Democrats in control and then Democrats lose the Senate, they will at least have passed legislation that will be difficult for the Republicans to overturn. Further, if the Senate passes legislation to protect voting rights, Republicans will have a harder time gaining or retaining control of legislatures in states that have suppressed voters' rights. Republicans know this, which is why they have worked so hard – filibustered, in fact – to prevent the passage of voting rights legislation.
Per Article I of the Constitution, only a simple majority is required to pass legislation in the Senate. However, passing any legislation effectively requires 60 votes, or a "supermajority" in the Senate because the filibuster can stop bills from even ever coming to a vote. How did this came about without any constitutional basis or the approval of the American public? Read on to learn about the sordid history of the filibuster.