Congress can make a state by a simple majority vote. For example, Oregon was admitted on a 114-103 vote when several Republicans surprised their colleagues by voting Yes.
This was a vote in the House of Representatives. The Senate must also vote for a new state to be admitted. In the Senate, there are 100 total votes — two for each state. So can the Senate admit a new state with 51 votes?
“Filibuster” comes from the Spanish word filibusteros, referring to pirates or freebooters who raided coastal towns in Puerto Rico among other places, and eventually began starting local wars for their own gain.
By the 1850s, the term was often used to describe the process of talking about a bill for so long that there was no time to vote on it. The use of the term began in the 1780s, but it became very common by the mid-1800s. The Senate at that time had no way to end a filibuster. The filibustering politician didn’t even have to stay on topic — they could read a cookbook aloud if they wanted to, and they could not be stopped.
Sen. Huey P. Long spent 15 hours and 30 minutes filibustering by reading the Constituion, the plays of Shakespeare, and oyster recipes in 1935. Strom Thurmond set a record in 1957 by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss in 2013.
But nowadays filibusters don’t even have to involve speeches. As Vox puts it, “Today’s filibusters simply paralyze the Senate until the majority either finds 60 votes to proceed or gives up and moves on to another piece of business.” The Senate hangs around till they can get enough votes to continue, or until they give up.
The basis of the tactic is the fact that the Senate allows unlimited debate. Senators are allowed to debate an issue for as long as they like. Any senator can call for debate on a bill in order to delay the vote, and until there are 60 votes to stop it, the vote cannot be taken. It seems like a strange custom, and one that works against the idea that the majority should rule. However, the Senate itself works against that idea. While the House has representatives based on the population of each state, the Senate has two senators for each state, from a populous state like California to a tiny state like Wyoming. The object was to make sure that big states couldn’t boss little states around.
The result? The Senate is not representative of the nation as a whole. Even though the latest census data shows that just 58% of Americans identify themselves as white, the Senate is 90% white.
With the filibuster rule in place, it seems unlikely that the Senate will pass statehood for D.C. It might be difficult for PuertoRico, too, though Puerto Rico statehood is a bipartisan issue.
But the filibuster rule has changed over the years, and it could change again.
“They could simply change the filibuster rule again,” said legal expert Alan B. Morrison. “And say the filibuster rule does not apply for applications of new states. They could do that with the stroke of the pen.”
In 1917, the Senate passed a law saying that a vote by 2/3 of the Senate could end a filibuster. This is called a “vote of cloture.” In 1975, the Senate changed the requirement to 60 of the 100 possible Senate votes. Now, any controversial vote actually requires 60 Yes votes in the Senate to pass, since a filibuster can only be ended if 60 senators vote for the filibuster to end.
A simple majority is still the way to win a vote. However, any senator can trigger a filibuster, and a filibuster can only be ended by a vote of 60 senators.
The result is that, even though 51 is still a majority, 60 is actually the number of senators required to settle a controversial issue.
Under these circumstances, senators may choose not to present a bill unless they already know they can get 60 votes. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, is a long-time supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico. He has said that he doesn’t want to bring the issue to a vote if the 60 votes aren’t there to stop a filibuster.
“Cloture” is a French word for “fence.” It refers to an ending.
If you live in a state, ask your representatives to support the Puerto Rico Status Act and its Senate companion bill when it is introduced. You can use their Twitter handles.
If you live in Puerto Rico, you have no senators. In that case, ask your friends and family in the states to talk with their senators.
Let’s work to get the votes needed.