How Would a 50-50 Split Senate Work?

If we can successfully win the two Georgia Senate runoff races, we’ll have a perfectly split 50-50 Senate, which is incredibly rare. I got to wondering how exactly that works, especially as we all know that the party in the majority has an incredible amount of control, and the minority party has relatively few things it can do.

When will we know the final makeup of the Senate?

The Georgia Senate runoff elections are happening on January 5th, but as we’ve seen with the presidential election, it is taking some time to fully tabulate (and recount) the votes. That said, runoff elections never attract the same level of turnout that a presidential election does, so ideally, we’d know within a week of the election date.

If we win both seats, the Democrats will have 50 seats and the Republicans will have 50 seats. Of course, if we lose even one of these races, the Republicans will have the clear majority, Mitch McConnell will be the Majority Leader, and any hope of passing significant progressive legislation under Biden goes away. We all remember, that he obstructed nearly everything Obama wanted to do.

If it’s tied, who has the majority?

The Vice President breaks any ties in the Senate, and that gives the Democrats the advantage. Once Kamala Harris is sworn in on January 20th, she’ll give the Democrats the majority. (Note, though that the 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3rd, so if any votes come up between then and the 20th, Mike Pence is the tiebreaker.)

Which party will hold the committee chairs?

Because the Vice President breaks ties, the Democrats would hold the Chairs of all Senate committees.

Who will the majority leader be?

The Democrats would be in the technical majority, so they’d get to choose the majority leader. But…

In a split Senate, would the Majority Leader have as much control as McConnell has had?

No. Although the Vice President votes to break any ties when it comes to voting, there are a lot of rules and procedures that need to be agreed upon that dictate how the Senate will be run during the term. Back in 2000, when the Senate was split 50-50 briefly under President Bush (more on that a bit later in this post), Majority Leader Trent Lott (R) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) had to collaborate and come to an agreement on everything. Also, funding for staffers and office space would be equally split.

Can Schumer and McConnell work collaboratively together?

There is little hope that McConnell would suddenly cease to be the partisan obstructionist that he has been in the past. That said, without some level of collaboration, the Senate won’t be able to move forward with even the most basic of functions.

That sounds like a nightmare. How long could such a stalemate last?

Here’s a quick and interesting story from our recent history. Back in 2000, Bush was president and he ended up with a 50-50 split Senate. VP Dick Cheney was the tie breaker. But Jim Jeffords, at the time a very moderate Republican Senator from Vermont, got so fed up with his caucus and the White House (over too many tax cuts for the rich and not enough money going to special education for the disabled) that he left the party. He became an Independent and caucused with the Democrats.

This upset the balance that the Majority Leader (R) and the Minority Leader (D) had, as his switch gave the Democrats had the clear majority. It was a major blow to President Bush at the time. You can read a more detailed and compelling retelling of this story HERE.

Who will have the most leverage in a split Senate?

That’s an interesting question. A 50-50 split in the Senate, even if the Democrats have the majority thanks to the VP, is a tough spot for Joe Biden to be in. Why? Well, because he needs to keep his ideologically broad caucus to agree and stick together. He literally cannot lose a single senator. Now some will say that means that the more moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) will have more leverage, but honestly, if the two of them are on board, you’d still need to make sure your most liberal Senators, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, are also still on board.

Remember, you can’t lose one member of your caucus and use Kamala Harris as the extra vote. She can ONLY vote in a tiebreaker situation.

The other thing to consider, is that the most moderate Republican Senators are also potential targets. We only had a few instances of Republicans Senators straying from their caucus these last 4 years, but without Trump in the office, would that change? It’s possible. The Democrats would be wise to try and siphon off votes from Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney. Would any of them pull a Jim Jeffords, become an Independent, and then caucus with the Democrats to get their issues legislated?

Remember that Joe Biden was a Senator for 36 years, and then presided over the Senate when he was Vice President. He knows the Senate, and most of these Senators, incredibly well. That sets up a completely different dynamic with his White House than during Trump’s administration.

Could the Senate actually become more civil?

It’s hard to imagine that in this day and age and with Mitch McConnell in the mix. On the other hand, neither party would have any wiggle room at all, which could create more dialogue. Some Senators think it would improve the workings of the Senate. Only time will tell.

Primary Sources:
‘Everyone’s got leverage’: Dreading a 50-50 Senate split
A 50-50 Senate: Democrats in power but not control

Note: I’ve updated the How to Help the Georgia Runoff Races post with two new items: A new donation fund which splits your donation among a handful of effective grassroots organizations in Georgia plus a letterwriting campaign. You can find that HERE.


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