The Senate is now split 50:50 between Democrats and Republicans – and an early argument over its rules could show just how much the GOP wants to hamper other legislative priorities.
Because Democrats control the White House, they have a majority in an evenly divided Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris willing to act as a tiebreaker. To officially determine how the Senate will function when it comes to committee membership, lawmakers must approve what is known as an organizational resolution that sets out these rules. (Without them, Republicans still run the committees and the distribution of funds in a confusing way; even office space is not yet clear.)
But the divided chamber cannot even agree to that. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are negotiating this resolution even though they have reached a certain sticking point. Schumer has said he wants to model this move using a power-sharing agreement that Sens. Tom Daschle and Trent Lott made in 2001 during the last Senate between 50 and 50. McConnell, meanwhile, would like to add a caveat: He wants the Democrats to commit to upholding the legislative filibuster.
Schumer and many members of the Democratic caucus have rejected this idea as it would severely limit the party’s capabilities and leverage in the face of a possible Republican bills setback. For example, even if Democrats don’t vote to get rid of the Filibuster, there could be a risk that Republicans will become more open to compromise and negotiation over measures like backing Covid-19.
The filibuster itself gives Republicans more leverage over the organization’s resolution as the measure can also be filibustered.
This disagreement is already affecting some aspects of the Senate’s functionality: Republicans are still holding the confirmation hearings for Biden’s candidates and, according to a time report, are less inclined to rush such procedures. In addition, the Senatorial Committee’s duties have yet to be completed even if the legislature stares at a busy tenure.
Republicans’ argument over the rules could signal the approach they will be taking in the minority – where they could use their numbers to block or significantly reduce upcoming bills.
How a 50-50 Senate is supposed to work
So far, Schumer hopes to pass an organizational resolution very similar to that of Daschle and Lott in 2001.
“We offered to keep the same agreement the last time there was a 50:50 Senate. What is fair is fair, ”said Schumer in a speech.
Since the Democrats have a majority with Vice President Harris’s vote, they will chair all of the committees, but the resolution would split the membership of the committees, as well as the office space and funding, equally. Any action that gets a tie in committee could also get some consideration for progress on the ground.
As majority leader, Schumer will continue to oversee the legislative timing and timing of the vote. “In terms of agenda control, Democrats will make sure they have Standard Party power because, in essence, that’s what they do,” Utah State University political scientist Josh Ryan told PolitiFact.
Schumer has suggested using the 2001 agreement as a model as it sets a precedent for how the two parties could act in these particular circumstances.
However, McConnell also wants a commitment not to eradicate the legislative filibuster that the Democrats have opposed. “We have to have the kind of strength that allows us to get things done,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Politico.
The Democrats have urged Schumer to hold on to these rule negotiations, which underscores one of the party’s first strengths in the majority. You referred to the 2001 precedent and said it should remain unchanged. As noted by Slate’s Jim Newell, McConnell’s motivations for pushing the issue are also unclear – as the resolution will ultimately not be enforceable if Schumer later decides to blow up the filibuster anyway.
The 2001 example is the most recent time the Senate has had this type of split: it happened only two more times in history, in 1881 and 1954.
Deadlocks could lead the Democrats to think about reconciliation
If Republican outcry over the Senate organizational resolution is any indication, the 50:50 collapse could mean more barriers to everything from controversial cabinet candidates to other legislative priorities, so Democrats are looking for procedural options that will bypass these dead ends.
The Democrats’ first option is to negotiate with Republicans on key bills such as Covid-19 aid and immigration reform in the hope of winning 10 lawmakers who would help reach the 60-vote threshold, necessary to promote this policy. At the same time, they face the challenge of keeping every member of their caucus updated, including the moderates who may be more likely to break off.
“You have to hold your caucus together – Joe Manchin is the wildcard here too. Kyrsten Sinema too. The centrists will have a lot of power: Manchin, Sinema, Murkowski, Collins, ”says Jessica Taylor of Cook Political Report.
GOP’s growing opposition to Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 recovery package suggests that Republicans may be bracing themselves to obstruct or curtail his proposals. This scenario could lead the Democrats to leverage a process known as budget balancing.
As part of the budget vote, lawmakers can push spending and tax measures by simple majority vote, so Democrats may be able to pass some aspects of Covid-19 aid like direct payments and paid sick leave without Republican support. The level of Republican opposition they face will likely be a factor in whether they ultimately go down that road.
“I think it is likely, if not almost certain, that reconciliation will be a tool,” former Senator Tom Daschle told Vox.
Depending on how severe the Republican blockade remains, removing the legislative filibuster might also be considered – although there is currently disagreement in the Democratic caucus on whether to weigh that option. As Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) told Vox earlier, “The dynamic is whether Mitch McConnell is doing to a Biden presidency what he did to an Obama presidency.”
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