As a new Congress begins, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have put aside debating bills for a moment to debate debate. Some in the Senate would like to see changes made to the now ubiquitous practice of filibustering legislation, both in terms of how a filibuster is conducted and the number of votes required to terminate one. While some Americans may have a vague idea about what a filibuster is, a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” one-man speech on the Senate floor, few know much about the actual process. In a January 2010 Pew Research poll, at the height of the Senate debate over health care reform, just 26% of Americans were able to correctly answer that it now takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. About as many (25%) mistakenly said a simple majority of 51 votes can break a filibuster, while a 37%-plurality admitted they just didn’t know. As with most other questions on a news quiz, well-educated people, older Americans and men were more likely to know that 60 votes are required to break a filibuster. There was not much difference among partisan groups; as 30% of Republicans, 25% of Democrats and 29% of independents answered the filibuster question correctly. Read More

Russell Heimlich  is a former web developer at Pew Research Center.