The Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the White House, so they should be able to make laws pretty easily, right?
Not so fast. The Senate is fiercely divided, 50-50, and several of those Democrats are considerably less progressive than others. Vice President Kamala Harris can vote with the Democrats to break any tie, but that still requires all 50 to be in agreement on a bill.
And even 50 votes may not be enough with some legislation. Unlike in the House of Representatives, a Senate rule called the filibuster often requires 60 votes to pass any law, which would require much more bipartisan compromise. Here's how it all works, and how the Democrats (or the Republicans when they have the majority again) could change it if they want to:
Understanding the filibuster
To filibuster is simply to block a piece of legislation from moving forward. For most of the history of the Senate, this required a senator to be recognized on the floor, and to talk consistently. A vote couldn't proceed until he or she (always "he" until 1922) stopped talking and debate could conclude.
In the 1970s, the Senate changed this rule to allow other Senate business to continue while a filibuster took place. While it made the Senate more efficient, it also allowed any senator to start filibustering simply by giving notice that they intended to do so, and they don't have to talk for hours on end. Filibustering prevents debate on a bill from ending, and if the debate doesn't end, there can't be a vote.
The only way to end a filibuster is to trigger something called cloture, which requires three-fifths of the body. That's currently 60 votes out of the 100 in the Senate.
Since any senator can filibuster any bill, this pretty much requires 60 votes to get any contentious legislation passed, regardless of who's in power. If the majority party can't get 60 votes, they typically opt to let the bill die.
So, how can a party pass a bill through the Senate with a simple majority?
There are two main options here. The Democrats can use budget reconciliation for individual bills or end the filibuster altogether. Let's take these one at a time.
How budget reconciliation works
Based on the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, bills in the Senate can pass by a simple majority if the legislation is related to federal spending and revenue, and if it doesn't raise the deficit by a pre-established amount. The Byrd Rule, named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd, prevents bills from being included in budget reconciliation if they make changes to Social Security or don't impact a change in "outlays or revenues."
Progressive Senate Democrats recently came up against this rule when the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian ruled that raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour counted as an "extraneous" measure under the Byrd Rule. Sen. Bernie Sanders, as you can imagine, strongly disagreed with that assessment:
"It is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent with the Byrd Rule, while increasing the minimum wage is not."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could fire the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, and replace her with someone who he believes would consider the minimum wage increase reasonable under the Byrd rule, or Democrats in the Senate (plus VP Harris) could vote to overrule her and move forward anyway, but neither are likely to happen. Basically, it's an established norm that you abide by the Senate parliamentarian's ruling, but it's not a law, and they have been fired in the past.
If this sounds too complicated or politically risky, and they have trouble passing any legislation with more than 60 votes, Democrats could also opt to...
End the filibuster
This is considered the "nuclear option." It's been wielded before, albeit in a limited fashion. In 2013, Democrats voted to end the minority party's ability to filibuster presidential nominees (though not Supreme Court nominees). The concern at the time was that Republicans were blocking too many of President Obama's executive and judicial nominees.
It only takes a simple majority to end the filibuster, but I'm sure you can guess why politicians are wary to do so. It's all well and good when your party is the one in power, but the pendulum swings both ways. If the Democrats eliminate the filibuster for legislation, they'll be giving up one of their primary methods of preventing the passage of laws they don't like should the Republicans take back the Senate, House, and presidency in the future.
Even though it only takes a simple majority to end filibusters, it was still considered a big deal when Democrats did it to appoint judges and executive nominees. Of course, Republicans had also drastically increased their number of filibusters when it came to Obama's nominees, so your existing political affiliations will probably determine how you feel about this one.
Ending the filibuster entirely seems unlikely in the current Senate. Moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they would not vote to do so, and the Democrats would need a majority in the Senate to make it happen.
For the time being, it appears that Democrats will try to pass what legislation they can through budget reconciliation, and hope that some other bills aren't controversial enough to incite consistent filibustering. Should Republicans filibuster nearly any bill that comes to the Senate floor, even Manchin and Sinema might change their tunes.