With Democrats sweeping the Georgia election runoffs, the United States Senate is about to enter a situation it hasn’t encountered in two decades.
And that’s a 50-50 split.
There will be 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
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When the Senate is split, of course, the vice president breaks the tie.
That’ll be Vice President Mike Pence if the two Georgia senators are seated on Jan. 19, the next time the Senate is scheduled to be in session.
But it could also happen a few days later, as Georgia has until Jan. 22 to certify the election results.
At that point, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaker.
Since most votes aren’t on strict party lines, most vice presidents have had to break ties even without a 50-50 split. Pence has done so 13 times, the most since the 14 tie-breaking votes cast by Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, who served from 1837-1841 under President Martin Van Buren.
When there is a split Senate, however, the issue of a majority isn’t just about votes, but control over committees and agendas, which is what Harris’ tie-breaking vote ensures Democrats.
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“It’s the agenda, an agenda shift — totally changed,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., told the New York Times. “They’re going to have the ability to run things from the House and, you know, shift the emphasis.”
The most recent example of how the Senate worked under a 50-50 split is from 2001, when Vice President Dick Cheney’s vote gave Republicans control over the chamber.
But then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also worked out a power-sharing arrangement with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
That put the Republicans in ultimate control, but also gave some allowances to Democrats including equal memberships on committees (albeit with Republican chairs), equal budgets and also certain legislative concessions.
“I could have been a horse’s rear, and said, ‘We have the majority, the hell with you,’ ” Lott told the Washington Post. “And we would have had daily warfare.”
Many have pointed to that arrangement as a model for what we could see next. Indeed, when a split Senate seemed like a possible outcome ahead of the 2016 election, McConnell pointed to that agreement as a model.
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But there is a difference in 2020.
“Tom Daschle and I used to talk more in a day than Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer do in a month of Sundays,” Lott told the Post.
There’s much more animosity now than there was then – and Democrats may be willing to risk “daily warfare” on the floor.
However, there is another side to the coin… and that’s the fact that the Senate still includes many who prefer bipartisan work on the big issues, including some centrist Democrats who may not want to push their GOP colleagues too far.
“Before there can be a vote No. 51, there must be votes 50, 49 and 48,” Richard Cohen, chief author of the Almanac of American Politics, told PolitiFact. “Democratic senators who might have reservations about supporting the most liberal proposals, such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, won’t want to be taken for granted by others in the Democratic conference.”
Having a handful of more centrist senators from states prone to electing Republicans could also give Democrats food for thought if they try pushing the Senate too far to the left… because there’s another precedent from 2001 they may want to watch out for.
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The power-sharing arrangement that year ended in the summer, when Democrats convinced then-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to switch sides, giving them a majority.
With the shoe on the other foot, it’s always possible the GOP could lure a Democrat onto their side to restore balance.
The Associated Press contributed to this article