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Government

The 50-50 Split In The U.S. Senate ‘We Have Precedent For This, And It Can Be Done.’

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) chats with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in October.  Now their roles are reversed.
Then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) chats with then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in October. Their roles are now reversed.

The U.S. Senate is now locked in a 50-50 tie with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. This new balance comes after the Georgia runoff election wins by John Ossof and Reverend Raphael Warnock. This is only the fourth time in the history of the United States this has happened.

Reporter Eric Douglas spoke with political science professor Mary Beth Beller, from Marshall University, about what that tie means for the Senate moving forward.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: The Senate is facing a 50-50 split with the vice president serving as a tiebreaker. What's that going to be like for the Senate's ability to get anything done?

Beller: It actually depends on how closely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decides that he and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can work together. We actually have precedent for this, and it can be done. And it can actually be done well. They can use the previous model established by the former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in 2001, in which they did several things. First, they agreed to have committees be 50-50, in terms of representation. They also decided that both parties would evenly split the Senate budget. And that's really important because the budget determines the number of staff positions that each committee can have, that each senator can have. And so they really worked hard to divide things all the way down the line, and work together. Most important is that the controlling party gets to set the calendar, the calendar refers to what items are going to be put on an agenda for consideration by committees, but also what items are coming up for a vote. What Daschle and Lott did was to agree to evenly share that calendar,

Douglas: How successful were they? What were they able to accomplish in 2001?

Beller: The big piece of legislation that came out of that was the “No Child Left Behind Act.” In hindsight, it had a lot of problems and was changed over time and eventually fell by the wayside. But, at the time, it was a bipartisan effort to recognize the necessity of having the federal government involved in education policy. It had been debated between the parties before. So it was a big piece of legislation. And it happened early on during that time period.

Douglas: Do you think it was possible that the fact that they were split 50-50 forced them to negotiate on something like this, versus ‘we have a majority, we can just do whatever we want’ — the kind of approach we've seen for the last few years in the Senate?

Beller: We could still see a stalemate, if the Democrats and Republicans see it in their political favor to do so. However, there are a lot of issues where there are some agreements. And so they might be able to work in a bipartisan manner, especially splitting committees 50-50. And budget sharing is a big, big deal. If they agree to do that, then I think that's going to lend itself toward more cooperation.

Douglas: And maybe not on everything, but on a couple key things. They don't have to join hands and suddenly become one party.

Beller: Dachle and Lott have both said they understood that there were some policies that their parties just weren't going to go for. That's why they set the calendar to prioritize issues where there was common ground. And I think we could get that out of McConnell and Schumer now.

Douglas: You said this has happened before as well. What are some of the historical precedents?

Beller: In 1953, during the President Dwight D. Eisenhower era, with Vice President Richard Nixon as the president of the Senate, but that only lasted a short while. The other time that I've found was actually much more contentious. That was in 1881, under President James Garfield's reign. Back then we only had 37 states, but the Senate was still split. President Garfield needed to call the Senate in to confirm his committee members, and it exploded in a huge fight that lasted 11 weeks. The senators did not want to cooperate. Eventually, one of the Democrats broke ranks with his party and joined the Republicans to caucus. And so that enabled a majority vote in order to get some things done.

Douglas: Do you foresee this 50-50 split going until the next midterm election or do you think there will be something else happening along the way?

Beller: Typically, members of a party really frown on electing someone who then switches parties. It's not popular in state party politics as you can imagine. So if that 50-50 changes in either direction, it can upset that balance. Obviously, if a senator switches to Democrat, then it would give the Democrats a clear majority. And there would be less emphasis for Schumer to actually share budgets or share policy control with McConnell.


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