Filibuster Fight: Why The Stakes Are High For Both Parties The procedure has evolved at many points in history, clearing breakthroughs on civil rights and a recent GOP judicial spree. Those issues show why the two parties see changing it now as existential.

Why Possibly Changing The Filibuster Brings Threats Of Political 'Nuclear' War

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the Senate, a minority of 41 votes can stop almost any legislation from moving forward. This is the filibuster. A growing number of Democrats want to get rid of it, and both parties see a lot at stake. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: To many Democrats, the filibuster is a giant barrier to everything they want to accomplish. At the funeral for congressmen and civil rights hero John Lewis, former President Obama listed some of them - ending partisan gerrymandering, making Election Day a national holiday statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

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BARACK OBAMA: And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do.

LIASSON: The history of the filibuster is inseparable from the struggle for equal rights. From the end of Reconstruction to 1964, the filibuster was used almost exclusively to block civil rights bills. But since 1964, it slowly became ubiquitous.

ADAM JENTLESON: Other senators had seen how effective it was as a legislative tool of obstruction against civil rights and decided to start experimenting with it on their own pet issues.

LIASSON: That's Democrat Adam Jentleson. He was chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He's the author of the book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of Democracy" (ph).

Originally, a filibuster meant talking a bill to death, like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." But over time, it was made easier to use. Now, a simple phone call to the Senate cloakroom is all it takes to start a filibuster. Since it became painless, more senators started to use it.

JENTLESON: And so that is why today we sort of consider it an accepted fact of life that everything that happens in the Senate needs to clear 60 votes.

LIASSON: Democrats and Republicans alike learned to love the filibuster when they were in the Senate minority and loathe it when they were in the majority. Now that the filibuster is the biggest obstacle to Biden's agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is threatening Republicans - compromise with us, or we'll nuke the filibuster. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a counter threat - nuke the filibuster, and we'll make life in the Senate unbearable.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin - can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like.

LIASSON: It would be a nightmare, says McConnell, a hundred-car pileup with constant quorum calls and senators required to be physically present day and night. And then, McConnell says, when Republicans regained control of the majority...

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MCCONNELL: We wouldn't just erase every liberal change that hurt the country. We'd strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero - zero input from the other side.

LIASSON: And, says Josh Holmes, McConnell's former chief of staff, that is no idle threat.

JOSH HOLMES: If there's one thing I've learned over the last 20 years, it's when Mitch McConnell makes a threat, Mitch McConnell follows through with the threat. Right?

LIASSON: But Democrats don't seem scared. A scorched-earth Senate would be hard for McConnell to maintain, they say, since Republicans would suffer, too. And reversing popular legislation isn't easy. Republicans couldn't even find 51 votes to get rid of Obamacare when they were in the majority. Constitutional hardball, once it gets going, is self-perpetuating. Every time one party changes a rule because it can, it makes it easier for the other to do the same. And over time, the filibuster has changed. It once took 67 votes to break a filibuster. That was reduced to 60, and senators carved out exemptions for Cabinet secretaries, judicial nominees - including the Supreme Court - and budget bills.

But this tool of minority rule can still stop all other legislation. Democrats don't yet have the 50 votes they'd need to end the filibuster, and the filibuster itself is not an animating issue for most voters. So in order to convince every Democratic senator to abandon it, says Jentleson, it would have to be connected to a bill the public really wants.

JENTLESON: The public has consistently shown that what they want is results. They want to see their lawmakers deliver popular policies that improve their lives, and they are not particularly concerned about what procedures lawmakers use to get that done.

LIASSON: Democrats would first have to point to Republican filibusters of popular pieces of the Biden agenda, maybe infrastructure or gun background checks, a minimum wage hike or a renewal of the Voting Rights Act. And there's the question of President Biden. He's a champion of Senate tradition, but he says he agrees with former President Obama that the filibuster is a relic of Jim Crow. As a first step, Biden is in favor of restoring the so-called talking filibuster, where he says senators would have to hold the floor until they collapsed. But Biden also opened the door to going further.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And if we have to - if there's complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we'll have to go beyond what I'm talking about.

LIASSON: And that's just one reason members of both parties predict that the filibuster in its current form won't last much longer.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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