It seems nearly unimaginable that history could repeat itself so soon, but in this "anything goes" election year, if you look at most projections for Senate control, it's quite possible the Senate could end up in a dead split right down the middle, even-steven Republicans to Democrats, a bittersweet, intensely ironic outcome in this polarized election year.
Most forecasters put fewer than 10 races in their so-called "toss-up" category, though some have not yet moved the real "leaners" just yet. It's pretty clear Republicans will take North Dakota, Arkansas, and Indiana, with Pennsylvania looking more and more like a goner for Dems. That would be a four-seat pickup, bringing the GOP number to 45, assuming Republicans hold their current numbers (and many analysts think they should, though some note Missouri as a possible takeover for Dems).
Now, take a look at what's left in the toss-up column: West Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Washington, and Connecticut. The first four of these races have the Republican challenger ahead when judged by the Real Clear Politics (not italicized) average of polls. If the GOP sweeps just one more of the remaining races, voila: 50-50.
2000 ELECTION -- 50-50 SENATE
No one paid a whole lot of attention back in 2000 when it first happened. After all, there was another, even bigger campaign wreck to ogle at for politicos, but the American electorate, for the first time, delivered a new kind of political cocktail to Capitol Hill with equal parts Democrat to GOP.
With a Republican soon occupying the Oval Office, the scale was slightly tipped to his party, but the leader of each caucus, Trent Lott for Republicans and Tom Daschle for Democrats, decided to meet for a divvying of the proverbial power pie.
And though Daschle and Lott were partisans, the two actually liked each other. You could see it in the way they interacted.
What came of that relationship was an historic power-sharing agreement that angered many on both sides of the aisle, each upset that perhaps they didn't have enough of an advantage on the Senate Monopoly playing board.
Republicans, especially, thought Lott gave up too much of the farm, with panels evenly split and the calendar a shared exercise, though aides to Lott back then say their boss set the priorities. Filibusters were slowed, with amendments not foreclosed by either side.
So, what about now?
To be sure, times have changed; the discourse more strident, the incivility more rampant. And the two leaders, Harry Reid for Democrats and Mitch McConnell for the GOP, enjoy, at best, a cordial relationship, but there is no love lost between them.
There are some who feel moderates might hold even more power with the ability to throw their votes to whichever side makes the right compromise in their eyes. But by far, the predictions are more skeptical or downright ominous by some experts and members, with many fearing the unexpected capsizing of 2010 GOP incumbents will strike fear in the heart of those up in 2012 and beyond, thus freezing the possibility of bipartisan bargaining.
"2011 will not be 2001. Not only are we both 10 years older, but the political system's ability to find common ground has had 10 years of deterioration," predicts Norm Ornstein, a nonpartisan expert on Congress and author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back."
That gloomy forecast is shared by a number of current members, most especially the more liberal members, like Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sees the prospects of Tea Party candidates entering the chamber as the nail in the compromise coffin.
"That would be disastrous. There's gridlock and then there's atrophy. This place would atrophy," Harkin said. "If it's 50-50, then that means a lot of these fringe candidates would win. And that means they're going to come in here and won't compromise on anything. That's what's different now than in '01."
Harkin said in 2001, Republicans were more accommodating. "Look now, we're losing George Voinovich, Kit Bond, Lisa Murkowski. We're losing Judd Gregg. We're losing all the moderates," Harkin cried.
Echoing Harkin's sentiment, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-NE. "I'm not sure what can get done if it's 52-48 or 56-44 with all of the polarization. Many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have to worry about their primaries, thinking about an opponent from the Tea Party. So, I don't know how effective we can be, whether it's 50-50, or something close to that," predicted Nelson, a key moderate who has worked on both sides of the aisle to come up with compromises on difficult issues, like judicial nominees and energy solutions.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who is retiring after this year, said he does not see a whole lot of reason to hope for accord either, but said it's more a reflection of the anger in the American electorate. "I don't think there's a 50-50 attitude in the American public today. I think the American public is 100% angry about the direction of this government, the spending they've been doing, the debt they're running up, the debt they're passing on to our kids we really cannot afford."
Gregg quickly added, though, that there might be agreement on one thing, "The consensus very well could be the American people want Congress to discipline our fiscal house." The senator and top Republican on the Budget Committee, is a member of President Obama's deficit commission which will attempt to present a report to Congress in December mandating a path to dramatically reducing the red ink. Whether Congress accepts it is another matter entirely.
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former top spokesman to then-GOP Leader Lott, said a similar power-sharing agreement would never work in this Senate. "It won't fly, because everything takes 60 votes in this Senate these days. And that is not likely to change." That's the vote count needed to overcome a filibuster, a tool often employed by the GOP minority.
But, Bonjean said he does see a slight possibility that moderates could enjoy some increased stature. "It does give a lot of power to a smaller band of senators. It could make things more bipartisan. The tax cuts were passed in 2001, because they forged a bipartisan compromise with Sen. Jon Breaux, D-La. It forces members to be more bipartisan, but in an era when that's not in fashion, it's more likely to produce gridlock."
Still another senior Senate GOP leadership aide said he would welcome the even split. "I hope it happens, because we'd be on the minority side of it. A majority with no majority sucks, but to have 50 means you have to keep 50 and grab 10 more from the other side. Not easy. We get more bargaining power to get bipartisan accomplishment."
LEGISLATIVE ACHIEVEMENTS IN 50/50
Bonjean said back in 2001, the power-sharing agreement "made committees very difficult to operate or get anything done." Still, that Congress got some major pieces of legislation accomplished, from the "No Child Left Behind" education bill that President Bush crafted with the significant support and input of the late liberal lion - Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, and Cong. George Miller, D-Calif. both then chairmen of education-related committees. The first round of tax cuts also made it through, as previously noted.
"But it would be much more difficult to clear Obama's nominees, the START treaty, an energy or climate change bill," predicted Bonjean.
Trade agreements, judicial nominations, the deficit commission work product, and spending and taxes were cited most often by numerous members as examples of ground where compromises might be found.
Indeed, with some Democrats running scared from angry voters fed up with the mounting debt, spending cuts could be fertile ground for accommodation. Certainly, if the GOP captures the House, earmark reform could even be stomached by a narrow majority in the Senate, said one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide.
"We've seen what happens when they have 60 or near 60. They haven't tried to reach out or do anything at all with us. They just try to pick off one of ours. Look at health care - 60 votes. Wall Street reform - 61. Stimulus - they picked off a few. Everything they did, they did it their way, and they didn't need us," the senior Senate GOP leadership aide said. "Typically when you have a 50/50 Senate, you don't have 50/50 votes, you have a lot of 80-20 votes."
Still, Ornstein predicts that gridlock is far more likely. "Whether it is 50/50 or 52/48 or 55/45, no significant legislative achievements, except perhaps a couple of free trade agreements, will make it through the House and Senate, and any compromises Reid, if he wins, and McConnell could make-- if any-- would never pass muster in the even more divided and acrimonious House."
And the stage would hardly be easily set for a power-sharing negotiation during this day and age. Daschle and Lott took a month to craft their compromise before announcing it just days after the new session opened in January 2001, but Reid, if he survives his reelection fight, and McConnell would have to bargain during what is shaping up to be a caustic lame duck session when a bitter fight over whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts could very well envelope the chamber.
And of course, no good 50-50 discussion would be complete without a suspenseful "what-if" game on possible party switches which could upset the playing field at the drop of a hat.
Back in 2001, the Lott-Daschle compromise was short-lived, as one unassuming GOP moderate from Vermont, on May 24, 2001, rocked the political world when he abruptly announced he would ditch his GOP label to become an Independent. Most importantly of all, Sen. Jim Jeffords agreed to caucus with Democrats, abruptly ripping the near-majority status Republicans enjoyed right out of their hands.
Out went Lott and Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, in came Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the head-butting commenced. Republicans would even later use that head-butting, which they called "obstructionism," as a key tool in their arsenal to defeat the senator in his reelection fight just a few years later.
Right out of the gate this year, Nov. 3 even, several Republicans told Fox there would be a concerted effort to woo those in the middle. "(Independent Sen.) Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson -- there will be an effort to court them. The stakes will be very high for senators to switch parties."
But - a Lieberman aide tells Fox, "The Senator has indicated that he is happy where he is and has no other plans."
Democrats would no doubt mount a similar charm offensive, with something of an unseemly tug-of-war ensuing over anyone even near the middle. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is mounting an uphill battle for reelection as a write-in Independent candidate, is a potential target for Dems. Some have even suggested the Maine senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
But, Bonjean pointed out one important point, "Their leverage is in not switching."