Insights: Working with a 50/50 Senate

Jan 19, 2021 | Insights

The 2020 November election finally came to an end in mid-January 2021, with Democrats winning two U.S. Senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia. The Democrats won by increasing voter turnout beyond that of the November election. Meanwhile, Republican turnout seems to have been suppressed by outgoing President Donald Trump’s attacks on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans.

Even with the election behind us, we are still a few steps away from having an evenly divided Senate with a Democratic majority:

  • Vice President-elect Kamala Harris resigned her California Senate seat on January 18, 2021. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom has already appointed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill her seat, and Padilla could be sworn into the Senate on January 19 or 20.
  • Vice President-elect Harris will be inaugurated on January 20.
  • The Georgia Secretary of State is expected to certify the results of the runoff elections on January 20, 2021, with the new senators being sworn in by January 21, but this may not be completed until January 22 or 23.

Once all of these steps are completed (expected to be within a day or two of the inauguration), the Senate will be evenly split with a Democratic majority.  The Democrats will hold the majority because as vice president, Harris serves as president of the Senate and can cast a vote to break any ties.

The biggest changes in a 50/50 Senate with a Democratic majority will be the leadership changes, the ability to confirm nominations to lead federal agencies and to fill judicial positions, and setting the agenda for committees and the Senate floor. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will be the next Senate majority leader, and Democrats will chair the Senate committees.

However, having the majority in a 50/50 Senate is not everything. Committees will be evenly divided, and agreement will be needed on how they will operate. A 2001 agreement, the last time there was an evenly divided Senate, provides some guidance on what we may see.  

Under the terms of the 2001 agreement, if a bill or nomination could not get voted out of an evenly split committee because of a tie vote, the committee chair could still discharge the bill or nomination to the Senate floor. This procedural maneuver would then require debate and a vote on the Senate floor to approve the discharge. If approved, the bill or nomination would be placed on the Senate calendar for later consideration.  

The important point for working with a 50/50 Senate is the above reference to “debate and a vote on the Senate floor.” This is otherwise known as “floor time.” Floor time is a scarce resource, and it’s difficult to get for anything other than major bills enacting nationwide priorities. Most bills pass the Senate by unanimous consent of all 100 senators without any floor time at all. As a result, even with a 50/50 Democratic majority, most individual bills will need bipartisan support to make progress and pass the Senate.