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Cloture Votes Explained

February 27, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

In response to a comment on one of this site’s recent blog posts, we would like to try to describe what a cloture vote actually is.

Cloture votes have been invoked and rejected three times recently in the Senate, each time on a motion to proceed to debate of an Iraq resolution (S.Con.Res.2, S.470, and S.574). The events have been covered by the media as “blocked debates.” The reports generally mention the cloture procedure in passing, but do not go into the details of what cloture is and how exactly the procedure was used.

Here is how THOMAS’ Senate roll call page, describes the procedural details of one of these votes:

>Motion to Invoke Cloture on the Motion to Proceed to S.574; A bill to express the sense of Congress on Iraq.

Cloture is a motion to bring a debate to an end, effectively ending a senate stall tactic known as filibustering. So, logically, one would assume that since the motion to invoke cloture failed each time to receive the votes it needed for passage, an unlimited debate of the issue would then follow.

However, when cloture is invoked on a motion to proceed to a debate (as it was in these instances), it is not invoked to end a filibuster, at least not in the traditional sense of a filibuster where a senator holds up debate with tactical tangents. Generally, to proceed to debate an issue, the Senate Majority Leader asks for unanimous consent from the Senate. If part of the Senate is passionately against an issue and unanimous consent is not given, the motion to proceed to the issue goes to a cloture vote. The vote essentially serves as a filibuster test; it takes the same number of votes to approve cloture as it does to end a filibuster.

Technically, once a motion to proceed fails to win cloture, the disapproving party could indefinitely continue debating whether or not to debate the bill. However, by defeating the cloture motion, they have effectively won by displaying their overwhelming power to maintain a filibuster if the bill had proceeded to debate. The whole issue can then be tabled at this point, having been filibustered by default. This saves the time that a filibuster wastes in procedural gridlock.

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