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To start, there is no such thing as an infinite filibuster based on one person objecting to a bill passing. Such a dynamic is the stuff of Hollywood movies (ironically) and has not existed in the United States Senate for decades. Below I will summarize how the process will work and why citizen involvement over the next few weeks is critical. For a very detailed explanation of how the Senate filibuster works you should read this Congressional Research Service report.
On January 23rd, the United States Senate will reconvene to begin legislative business for 2012. After the first order of business is taken care of, Majority Leader Harry Reid will then continue the process he started on December 17th of moving PIPA towards a Senate floor vote. This process is known as invoking “cloture,” which is a rule that allows any Senator to impose a 30 hour time limit on debate subject to three-fifths of the Senate agreeing to end debate. Senator Ron Wyden has stated he will filibuster PIPA along with Senators Jerry Moran, Maria Cantwell, and Rand Paul and together they will use the full 30 hours available resulting in the cloture vote being held the next day.
On January 24th, Majority Leader Reid’s cloture motion will have matured its 30 hours and he will then be allowed to call for an up-or-down vote on moving forward to consider PIPA. If three-fifths of the U.S. Senate agree by voting yes on cloture (ending debate), then the bill can be taken up for consideration and the process where Senators can offer amendments will begin as well as another cloture motion (resulting in another 30 hours of debate). The general rule of thumb is a bill that has 60 Senators in support of its passage will take about three days to pass the U.S. Senate.
However, if 60 Senators do not vote yes on cloture, then Senators Wyden, Moran, Cantwell, and Paul will be allowed to continue to speak in opposition to PIPA forever. That being said, what would likely happen in the aftermath if PIPA fails to gain 60 yes votes is the bill is withdrawn and a compromise is negotiated. If no compromise is possible, then the bill officially dies. It is important to note that three-fifths of the Senate must vote yes to move PIPA forward. For example, if 59 Senators voted yes on cloture and 41 Senators voted present or do not vote at all, it fails to pass. The key factor in cloture is three-fifths of the Senate voting yes on cloture and not how many votes are against PIPA.
It is also possible that PIPA never makes it to the January 24th vote, but that depends on the public weighing in with their U.S. Senators before they come back to Washington D.C. To begin countering the $94 million spent in lobbying in support of PIPA and SOPA, more than a million Americans have contacted Congress in opposition and citizen boycotts have forced corporations to withdraw their support of passage. Now Senators are home and away from the D.C. lobby, which is the perfect time for citizens to ask their Senators to voice their opposition to PIPA before they return to Washington D.C. If enough Senators publicly object to PIPA, then it is likely that consideration would be delayed in order to begin negotiating a compromise. So it is important that the public try to meet with their two Senators and their home state staff and inform them on where they stand and ask their Senators to represent the public interest by standing with them.