Definition of Cloture: An Agreement to Limit Debate

Time for a quick civics lesson!

Cloture is a a motion to limit debate on a bill or other matter (i.e. nomination) pending before the Senate.  So what do news agencies mean when they say that yesterday’s Senate vote on the health care bill is a vote to begin debating the bill?

From the Washington Post:

After days of indecision, the last two Democratic holdouts — Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) — joined their caucus in supporting a motion to begin debate.

From the New York Times:

The Senate voted on Saturday to begin full debate on major health care legislation

From CNN:

the Senate voted to move ahead with a floor debate

These are just a few examples, but you can find countless others on Google News.

In olden days, you couldn’t actually ever stop debate on a bill if any Senator wanted to keep talking about it. As you can imagine, this meant that if a couple of Senators were really opposed to something, they could just take turns talking about it until the rest of the Senators caved and moved on to the other things they needed to vote on. In an effort to help move things along, the Senate changed its rules so that if two-thirds of the Senators wanted to end debate, they could do so by invoking cloture. Yes, it sounds a lot like closure, and the two words have very similar meanings. They’re about bringing something to an end.

The bar for invoking cloture was still so high that it was nearly impossible to do. Getting two-thirds of the Senate to agree on everything is like getting two three-year-olds to eat all of their vegetables. In fact, cloture was only invoked five times during the next 46 years. Consequently, the Senate changed its rules to require only three-fifths of the Senators to vote for a cloture motion in order for it to pass.

The motion that the Senate voted to invoke cloture on last night was the motion to begin debate.  In other words, the Republicans were stopping the official debate from even beginning, so the Democrats had to muster 60 votes just to start the debate.

I hope this little history and civics lesson has helped you understand what the Senate voted on last night.  Here are a couple of resources on the Senate website that deal with the history of cloture:
http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Cloture_Rule.htm
http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30360.pdf