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Rules of the last 50-50 Senate might not bind this one

Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON – A lot has changed in the 20 years since the Senate was last tied at 50-50.

The 2001 power sharing agreement is sure to serve as the template for what the Senate looks like after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. But the world, and the chamber, has changed since that agreement was in effect.

“On January 20, the hope will be to adopt an organizing resolution for the upcoming 50-50 Senate and for committees,” a Senate aide said Monday. “As of now, the 2001 organizing resolution is serving as the basis for negotiations, but the hope is that there may an opportunity to improve upon the agreement.”

Democrats will have the narrowest of possible majorities, with New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York becoming majority leader and enabling Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., to be elected as president pro tempore, the senior member of the majority party.

The 2001 agreement provided for equal numbers of members on Senate committees, with a process for discharging bills and nominations that deadlock, effectively giving the Republicans at the time a narrow advantage on setting the agenda on contentious issues.

That could be all the more advantageous for Democrats in the current Senate, since a filibuster of a nomination can be cut off with a simple majority of senators, which was not the case in 2001.


“If there was a tie vote in committee, either one of us could take it to the floor,” former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who was the majority leader in the last 50-50 split and an architect of the organizing resolution, said Monday in recalling the agreement.

That was not a shared agreement with the House, and so it did not apply to conference committees, a point highlighted in coverage of the 2001 deal. That means Democrats would be able to ensure majority control on any budget reconciliation conference committees, maintaining their ability to advance priorities with just a majority.

Lott, appearing at Bipartisan Policy Center with his Democratic counterpart at the time, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it will be up to Schumer and current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to figure out a workable process.

“Mitch McConnell is a world-champ defensive player. He’s proven that. But we need a little offense. Can we do something positive for America?” Lott said. “We need it in so many ways. These two guys — we’ve got to find a way to work together.”


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