Politics and sports have something in common: generally, there is no such thing as a tie.
In politics, there are winners and losers at the polls. In Congress, lawmakers pass bills or defeat them.
There’s no middle ground in Congress. Except for one arcane area -- over which party “controls” the United States Senate.
Political analysts see a close election on the horizon. This raises the possibility of a tie. A 50-50 Senate. There have been ties in the Senate before, one as recently as 13 years ago. But unlike professional sports, there isn’t a standard procedure to work out a Senate tie.
To break a tie in baseball, the teams just keeps playing. Inning after inning. The NHL had ties until it introduced a shootout in 2005. Ties are rare in the NFL, although one happened a few weeks ago.
Yet there’s no such thing as an official “tiebreaker” policy in the U.S. Senate. There have been three other Congresses where the vote breakdown in the Senate has been even. First in 1881. Then in 1953-54. Finally, in 2001. It’s generally believed that the party which holds the presidency, and thus the vice presidency -- who also serves as president of the Senate – automatically secures the majority in an otherwise deadlocked body. But it’s not that simple.
In the 47th Congress in 1881, the Senate featured 37 Republicans, 37 Democrats and two independents. Sen. David Davis, I-Ill., announced he would side with the Democrats. That put the focus on Sen. William Mahone, I-Va. Republicans heavily courted Mahone. After all, they believed they could secure the Senate majority if Mahone conferenced with the GOP. With the election of Republican President James Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur would cast tie-breaking votes in favor of the GOP.
Mahone kept close counsel leading up to the Senate’s organizing vote. But then he sided with Republicans. In gratitude, the Garfield administration sent a basket of flowers to be displayed prominently on the senator’s desk.
But things didn’t remain in GOP hands for long.
In May, 1881, both Republican senators from New York resigned in protest over an appointment issue with the White House. They were confident the New York legislature would re-elect them. In those days, voters didn’t directly elect senators. State legislatures did the selection then. The New York senators were wrong and they weren’t reappointed. The resignations of the GOP New York senators dramatically propelled Democrats to a two-seat majority.
This called for horse-trading. Democrats allowed Republicans to keep control of committees. But Democrats maintained Senate administrative posts.
This all changed by fall. Garfield was assassinated and Arthur ascended to the presidency. There was no vice president. So the Senate made Davis its president pro tempore, the Senate’s top officer. Davis suggested that despite the Democrats’ advantage the body should technically remain in GOP hands since Republicans held the White House and the House of Representatives.
You ain’t seen nothing yet until you’ve tracked the back-and-forth over which party held the majority in the 83rd Congress of 1953-54.
Republicans grabbed control of the Senate after the 1952 midterm elections. But the Republican majority wasn’t much. There were 48 GOPers, 47 Democrats and one independent, Sen. Wayne Morse, I-Ore. Over the course of two years, nine senators died.
Basketball announcers often talk about “there have been 15 lead changes in the game” as the teams toggle back and forth, up and down the court.
The Senate of the 83rd Congress was a little bit like one of those end-to-end basketball games.
Look at it this way. The makeup of the Senate started favoring the Republicans. Then went to even. Then tilted to the Democrats. Then went to even. Back to Democrats. Then to even. Then to the Republicans. Back to even. Then Republican. Then Democratic. Then even. Finally, back to the Democrats. That’s 12 “lead changes” in a single Congress.
But not really. The numbers may have flipped. But operational control really didn’t. Republicans maintained “majority party” status for the duration of the 83rd Congress, starting with Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft, R-Ohio – who later died – and finishing with Senate Majority Leader William Knowland, R-Calif.
Lyndon Johnson was the Democratic leader at the time. An astute operator in his own right, one would think LBJ would immediately move to secure power once Democrats had the majority numbers. But according to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in his book "Like No Other Time", Johnson “didn’t want to turn the Senate upside down if doing so might come back to haunt him.”
At the start of 1954, Knowland lamented the hand he was given to play as majority leader, despite Republicans lagging behind Democrats in Senate seats.
“I have the responsibilities of being the majority leader in this body without having a majority,” complained Knowland.
Johnson met Knowland with a sharp rejoinder.
“If anyone has more problems than a majority leader with a minority, it’s a minority leader with a majority,” snapped Johnson.
A similarly divided Senate arrived in 2001. Republicans had the majority before and presumed they would keep control in the new Congress despite the 50-50 makeup. That didn’t sit well with Daschle and other Democrats. Through weeks of negotiations, Daschle forged a power-sharing agreement with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Democrats demanded and received equal status on committees. And after the Florida election recount, it was clear that Vice President Dick Cheney would be available to break ties. The other part of the deal maintained Lott as majority leader -- but gave some power to Daschle. As the minority leader, Daschle could call up legislation to the floor the same as Lott.
Most significantly, built into the pact was the promise that if the balance changed in the Senate, they would void the organizing agreement.
Daschle later described that proviso as “prophetic.”
More than a year later, moderate Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., defected from the Republican Party and became an independent. In so doing, he agreed to caucus with the Democrats. Jeffords' abandonment of the Republican Party incensed Lott. But the Mississippi Republican would no longer serve as majority leader. Daschle would matriculate to majority leader.
In baseball, there is mythical rule which someone concocted that declares “ties go to the runner.” There’s no such thing written anywhere. Either the runner is safe or out. The umpire has to make the call. And if the Senate is tied after the midterm election, senators will have to sort it all out. Determine safe or out. Majority or minority.
And without the benefit of instant replay.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.