What happens if the Senate is tied? | WashingtonExaminer.com - Liar Liar!
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What happens if the Senate is tied? | WashingtonExaminer.com

With both political parties battling for control of the U.S. Senate in November, there has been scant consideration of a possible outcome neither side wants: An evenly divided Senate.

That the election could result in 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats elected to the United States Senate is neither impossible nor unprecedented, but it’s rare, and definitely complicated.

“It’s hard to govern with 50 percent,” former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove told the Washington Examiner.

Dove should know. He presided over the Senate’s rules and procedures during the 107th Congress (2001-2003) when, for nearly five months, 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats attempted to share power.

While the vice president provided a tie-breaking vote, first for Democrats with Vice President Al Gore, then for Republicans with Vice President Dick Cheney, the two parties reached a deal to operate on an even playing field on a day-to-day basis, splitting committee assignments, staffing and funding levels essentially down the middle.


“It was a mess,” Dove concluded.

It’s a scenario that could repeat itself in January if the election yields a 50-50 split.

If neither party wins the majority, Democrats would still have a technical majority because Democratic Vice President Joe Biden also serves as the Senate president and is able to cast tie-breaking votes, as Gore and Cheney did in 2001.

But 50 Senate Democrats in January would likely be forced to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the chamber’s 50 Republicans similar to the agreement reached in 2001, because most action in the Senate, including the apportioning of the committees, requires a 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster.

“They would have no choice,” Dove said of the Democrats.

Republicans tell the Washington Examiner they may seek even more from the Democrats than an evenly split committee roster if they win 50 seats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has for months vexed Republicans by blocking most amendments to legislation in order to stay clear of controversial votes. Reid said it was a necessary move to dodge the GOP's politically motivated provisions, but the amendment shutdown has infuriated a few Democrats, too.

Republicans say if the Senate is evenly split in January, they could move to curb Reid’s power over the amendment process, harnessing the anger among Reid’s own Democrats, some of whom believe they have been unfairly prevented from having the power to shape legislation.

“In a circumstance where there are at least 50 Republican votes and variable members inside the Democratic 50, I think there will be a lot of conversation about what Reid can and can’t do to continue his autocratic approach,” a top GOP aide told the Examiner.

A spokesperson for Sen. Reid did not respond to a request for a comment on how he would govern a 50-50 Senate if he is re-elected majority leader.

An evenly split Senate could prolong the organizing period beyond the Jan. 5 opening day of the 114th Congress while leaders struggle to hash out a deal.

The process could be delayed in part because senators may not be able to use the post-election “lame duck” session to organize for January if the Senate ratio is not be determined by Nov. 5.

The Louisiana Senate race faces a near-certain Dec. 6 runoff and in Georgia, the Senate race may fail to produce a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote, which would require a runoff election not scheduled until Jan. 6, the day after Congress convenes.

Complicating matters further, Iowa’s independent Senate candidate, Greg Orman, has yet to declare whether he’ll caucus with Republicans or Democrats.

“You won’t know for sure if you have a 50-50 Senate the day after the election,” a GOP aide said. “It could take months.”

Former Sen. Trent Lott told the Examiner if the election ultimately produces an evenly split Senate, much can be accomplished if the leaders are willing to work through their differences, something that rarely happens in the acrimonious Senate these days.

Lott was majority leader in January 2001 and worked out the power sharing agreement with then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

“We had huge fights,” because of the 50-50 split, Lott recalled with a chuckle.

The 107th Senate remained perfectly divided until May 24, 2001, when Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, announced he would leave the GOP, become an independent, and vote with the Democrats.

Jeffords' move gave Democrats the majority and ended the even split, which had been an occurrence so rare it had not happened as a result of an election since 1881.

Even before Jeffords tipped the power toward the Democrats, Lott said the two sides were able to strike agreements on major legislation, including a $1 trillion tax cut package passed on May 23, 2001, and the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, which cleared the evenly split Senate education panel in March 2001.

“You have to have some leaders, men and women willing to step up and make the best of it,” Lott said. “It can work in today’s Senate, too, if the personalities are different and the leaders will make up their minds to get something done, rather than just trump each other.”


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