Technically Speaking: Making Sense of Discharge Petitions, Cloture and Filibusters

Articles discussing extending unemployment insurance benefits and raising the minimum wage frequently toss around procedural terms.

How many signatures does a discharge petition have, and how many does it need? Why are all these “procedural” votes necessary before anything gets a final up-or-down vote? How does one filibuster? In civics text books, a filibuster seems to require a passionate, hours-long speech that brings all activity in the Senate to a screeching halt, so why doesn’t that seem to happen in practice?

Realizing we are also guilty of frequently using these terms, the Center for Effective Government wanted to draw up a terminology-conscious update that could serve as a guide to understanding recent headlines describing the progress on Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), minimum wage, and other legislation.

Discharge Petition

Democrats in the House have started a number of discharge petitions in recent weeks, which they are using to pressure the majority party (Republicans) into bringing specific issues up for a vote, including:

  • Extending Unemployment Compensation: The petition has collected 193 House signatures since being started on March 12, 2014. All but six members of the 199-member Democratic Caucus have signed, but so far, no Republicans have done so.

  • Raising the Minimum Wage: (H.R. 1010): One hundred ninety-five House members have signed the petition, but no Republicans have joined. Twenty-three Republicans are needed for the petition to succeed.

  • Comprehensively Reforming Immigration (H.R. 15): This peitition currently has 191 signatures, but no Republican has signed on, even though some have previously voiced support for reform.


Policy proposals are considered in committee before being considered by all representatives. A discharge petition is a useful tool when a proposal is stuck in a committee. Any member of the House can file a petition. After the petition is filed, the member is given 30 days to gather signatures. If, at the end of those 30 days, the petition receives 218 signatures, or a majority of the House, the petition will be considered on either the “second or fourth Monday of the month after a seven legislative day layover (except during the last six days of any session when the layover is waived).” If the discharge is successful, the bill is automatically moved out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote. As a historical note, the first-ever successful discharge petition in the House was filed to push the initial federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, out of committee and on its way to approval on the House floor.


Discharge petitions very infrequently lead to bills successfully becoming laws. According to Roll Call, only three discharged bills have become law since the tool was first created. Nonetheless, a discharge petition gives members, usually of the House minority party, an action around which they can organize supporters and keep media attention on an issue.

A similarly named mechanism exists in the Senate, but a Senate discharge resolution differs significantly from the House discharge petition, including a provision that allows it to be blocked even after a majority of senators sign the resolution.

Voting on Cloture on a Motion to Proceed

We were thrilled on March 27, 2014, when the Senate bill to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) passed a key procedural vote. Ten Republicans joined Democrats to move forward with the EUC bill by a vote of 65-34.

It might seem redundant, but senators vote on proceeding with the legislation before they take a final vote on a bill. Senators who voted for cloture on March 27 were in other words voicing the opinion, “I agree this proposal is important enough to be voted on by the entire Senate.”

In total, 60 senators must vote for cloture. If any fewer vote for cloture, the measure is expected to be filibustered. In practice, if a bill does not get 60 votes, the measure is considered defeated, as moving to a final vote would almost inevitablely lead to the measure being blocked by a filibuster.

The Modern Filibuster

In civics class, students are often taught about the ability senators have to filibuster a bill that they strongly oppose. Civics teachers describe the potential for hours-long speeches with the image of frail senators clinging onto the podium for dear life while swaying for lack of sleep and adequate nutrition.

In practice, however, filibusters can take multiple forms. On Wednesday, headlines reported that Republicans had “filibustered” the minimum wage bill, but there were no prolonged speeches. The Republicans had refused to vote for cloture, and the bill was prevented from moving forward by a vote of 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed.

Conscious of the limited time the Senate has for handling the nation’s business, leadership is careful to avoid filibusters as they could waste an immense amount of the chamber's time.

Perhaps if senators were made to give hours-long speeches to block legislation, they would be in less of a rush to block legislation so regularly.


For Further Reading:

Emergency Unemployment Benefits Bill Passes the Senate, Increasing Pressure on the HouseThe Fine Print blog, April 8, 2014

Stories of Americans Cut Off of Emergency Unemployment CompensationGovernment Matters, April 22, 2014

Emergency Unemployment Extension Expected to Take Back Seat to Tax ExtendersThe Fine Print blog, April 25, 2014

Technically Speaking: Making Sense of Discharge Petitions, Cloture and FilibustersThe Fine Print blog, May 5, 2014

Unemployed Americans Kicked Out of Capitol, Forced to Share Their Stories OutsideThe Fine Print, May 10, 2014

Six Months after Emergency Unemployment Benefits Expired, 2.8 Million Americans Left BehindThe Fine Print, May 20, 2014

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Thanks for the clarification. Question: The media has been releasing press reports stating so and so Republicans are "urging" Boehner to put the UI Extension bill on the floor for votes, but won't sign Nancy Pelosi's Discharge Petition because they say it will be disrespectful to Boehner. Isn't the Speaker's refusal to even bring it to the floor much more disrespectful of their rights to vote on an issue?
Some Republicans are definitely sweating -- check out the letter Reps. LiBiondo, King, Smith, Gibson, Grimm, Heck, and Runyan signed, basically begging Boehner to consider the unemployment extension. They're sweating-- keep up the pressure. Boehner's got his thumb on the button, but these Republicans know that if this stays in the media, they could lose their seats come election time. Signing the discharge petition would be very, very "disrespectful" within the party, but if they became convinced they would definitely lose their seats, if they didn't sign it... that could change things
The participation rate is pitiful and since millions stopped looking for work the unemployment rate dropped. This is NOT a good sign. When the long-term unemployed do not have funds to pursue employment they stop looking. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see this is a problem. Contact John Boehner and have him move the extended unemployment bill forward. John Boehner: Phone: (202) 225-0600 (#1 to leave a message #2 to speak with his assistant)
MAY 5, 2014 · 0 COMMENTS in PISSED! It is essentially this current house democrat bill HR 4415 but was amended to include what I imagine republicans and Boner would consider “job creation measures” and an offset. So now Boner has no more excuses left not to consider it and will be forced to either allow it to a vote or negotiate. The bill will have to pass the senate as well but we know the senate supports an EUC bill and time is running short for not only the unemployed but for mid term elections. They can still blame the repubs for filibustering and holding it up for any concessions they make that they normally wouldn’t so it is kind of a win/win granted it won’t be retro. But it does go until the end of November…..coincidence or good timing? lol. As far as losing the retro I am fairly sure those who were cut in Dec would still qualify assuming they did not exhaust any tiers they will reinstate if they are jobless, just will not get retro back pay. In other words they are just moving the start date forward, not disqualifying anyone between dec and june. If I am wrong about this can anyone confirm it? The bills are rather vague on this but I could not imagine fighting for us for over 4 months only to write a bill that leaves us to rot. From EdSucksdotcom. Better explains what I was saying about NO RETRO
If its not retro. I lose all the money and will only get 200 instead of 400 weekly from euc. Because my euc claim is from 2012 and it seems I worked enough in quarter 3 and 4 of 2013 to start a small claim. So I can't reapply for euc. Then when and if I get small claim it will not be financially eligible to collect euc. So this bill will fuck me good. For me it will be a win/ lose His direct office email address. Ooops, sorry, I had transposed the domain name. This is the correct one.
Yes.. There is abit of pressure NOW that the midterm elections are around corner.I just received a letter in the mail from Democratic party to check my biggest concerns of the Republican party.Unemployment extension was sure on it! The rich Koch brothers have been like a vise grip for their backing of Republicans. IM SURE they said you secure the pipeline and other stuff they all have investment in,we will give republicans a big Donation and backing. BUT! Some Republicans need votes FIrst to even be in the mix. They recognize their are w hole lot of Poor.lower and high income Republicans voters that have lost there jobs. JUST check out other blogs and websites. Retroactive is what the majority of long-term unemployed NEED ASAP!!!!! This month is the last month to get this done. I WILL CONTINUE TO ASK GOD TO WORK THROUGH MAN FOR THE GOOD OF HIS PEOPLE.
Since I became unemployed in 2008, I have received unemployment to help pay the bills. However, I still became homeless and had to live a shelter. I continue to work numerous part-time jobs in search of permanent employment, but to no avail. I had no choice but to return to college. I received two degrees and I'm still looking for permanent employment. I was able to move out of the shelter and into a 1 bedroom apartment, but how will I survive without the help of extended unemployment benefits, I have no income. Since I have no support from the government to help with the bills while I look for permanent, unfortunately I find myself going full circle, right back into the shelter. Can I sue the government for breach of contract, I have paid into unemployment insurance since I was 11, now I'm 59 years old. Where is democracy, we all deserve a vote on federal unemployment benefits.
There is suppose to be press conference today about UE extension at Whitehouse lawn.Republicans blocked them from using a room on talks today! Let us see :God work this mess out SINCE MAN CANNOT.Continue to pray and ask him not man..