Twin wins by Democrats in two US Senate runoff elections in Georgia, if confirmed, could divide the chamber 50-50 and give Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.
Raphael Warnock, a Black Baptist preacher, beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, declared victory with a narrow lead over incumbent David Perdue.
How will a 50-50 Senate work?
The Senate currently has a Republican majority. The Office of the Secretary of the US Senate says that it must have in hand a properly executed certificate of election from the state to swear in and seat a senator.
This could yet last a few days or even a couple of weeks, because Georgia counties have until Jan. 15 and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has until Jan. 22, to certify statewide results from the Jan. 5 elections. So there may not be a 50-50 Senate until then.
Vice President is the tie-breaker
The US Constitution makes the vice president the presiding officer of the Senate, who can vote only in case of a tie. Once Harris is sworn in on Jan. 20, she will become the tie-breaking vote, giving the Democrats effective control of the chamber.
Until then, the Republicans will have the majority even if the newly elected Democratic senators are sworn in, because Vice President Mike Pence will be the tie-breaker until he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Has this ever happened before?
Yes, three times previously: in 1881, 1954 and again 20 years ago.
In 2001 the Senate was split 50-50 from January until June, when Senator James Jeffords left the Republican Party and became an independent who caucused with Democrats, giving the Democrats control.
How does a 50-50 senate work day-to-day?
Senate Democratic Leader Schumer declared on Wednesday he would be the new majority leader, but said he had yet to speak to the current majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell.
In practice, the vice president usually is not in the Senate chamber every day, delegating the presiding to a member of the majority party.
So the desire to bring some predictability to daily operations prompted the party leaders in 2001 to strike a power-sharing agreement to guide the chamber.
Republican Leader Trent Lott was recognized as the majority leader, based on the fact that the new Republican vice president, Dick Cheney, was the tie-breaking vote. The agreement, however, mandated that both leaders seek to attain an equal balance of the two parties’ s interests when scheduling and debating legislative and executive business.
The deal split committee memberships evenly, instead of giving the majority an advantage as would normally happen, and made some other provisions to regulate floor proceedings.
If a tie vote prevented a measure or nomination from escaping committee to the Senate floor, the majority or minority leader could move to bring the bill to the floor – and only a majority vote was needed to do so.
Democrats can count on Harris’ vote. Do they really have to strike a power-sharing agreement with Republicans?
No, but such a deal might help them get something like a normally functioning Senate, said Michael Thorning of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“If Democrats really want to play hardball on Jan. 20, they don’t have to enter into a power-sharing agreement like this. They could leverage their 50 votes plus the vice president to try to run the Senate the way they see fit,” he said.
“They may find that under the current rules, that that is a very slow, very arduous way to run the Senate. You’d essentially be having a little skirmish over everything you wanted to do if Republicans really also wanted to play hardball,” Thorning said.
Former Senator Tom Daschle, who led the Democrats in 2001 in negotiating the power-sharing agreement with Lott, recommended that Schumer negotiate some kind of similar deal with McConnell.
“There’s only so much you can do with 51 votes, and you can’t expect the vice president to be sitting there, day after day, on every single issue, breaking the tie,” Daschle said.
“At the end of the day you’ve got to figure out a way to collaborate with the minority, because for all intents and purposes, there is no minority; you’re an equal. You’re equally represented in the Senate and that requires some equal voice, with regard to what the agenda is going to be.”
Lott acknowledged that the deal he negotiated with Daschle was not initially well received by other Republicans in 2001. “Some of my best friends were critical of it — basically saying what are you doing? We have the majority, you’ve gone too far!” Lott said.
“Finally … Pat Roberts of Kansas … stood up and said, ‘what are you people thinking? It’s 50-50. Our leader did the best he could. Now let’s move forward.’ That basically shut them all up,” Lott said.