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Legislative Process 101—Organizing Resolution in the Senate

UPDATE: Thanks to grassroots pressure, Republicans were forced to fold and Senators Schumer and McConnell agreed to an Organizing Resolution that mirrors the 2001 power-sharing agreement. On February 3, the Senate approved the resolution by unanimous consent. 

Under the terms of the resolution, Democrats will hold all committee chairs as the majority party while committee membership is split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats. Importantly, even bills that receive a tied vote in committee can be reported out to the Senate floor. The resolution does not require Democrats to retain the filibuster throughout the 117th Congress. 

Winning the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia was a huge step towards rebalancing political power in Congress. 

Now with a 50/50 split in the Senate, we will need to apply targeted pressure to ensure Democrats wield their power to the fullest extent, instead of falling into the GOP’s false promise of good faith bipartisanship (a mistake that badly hampered the early years of the Obama presidency).

Negotiating a favorable organizing resolutionfor Democratic leadership is a critical first step.

What is an Organizing Resolution?

A 50/50 split of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate is very rare, but the situation lends itself to a deviation of procedural norms. For example, when either party holds 51 or more seats in the Senate, that party is considered the Majority Party and holds powerful duties (e.g. scheduling the legislative calendar, committee Chair positions, etc). Traditionally, at the start of a new Congress, the Senate negotiates and passes—routinely by Unanimous Consent—a Simple Resolution (S.Res.) stating the organizational makeup of the Senate. But what happens when neither party holds the majority and the Senate is gridlocked in a tie? 

An Organizing Resolution (sometimes also called aPower-Sharing Agreement) is decided among both Democratic and Republican leadership to delegate or share authority, responsibilities, and committee leadership roles and resources. The agreement is passed in the form of a simple resolution, which would need to pass by unanimous consent or garner 60 votes.

Has Power-Sharing Ever Been Used in the Senate?

Yes, once in 2001 and prior to that in 1881. The time was short (6 months to be exact) when the leadership power of the Senate was shared by both parties in the 107th Congress. Former Democratic leader, Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), and former Republican leader, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) negotiated and passed by voice vote S. Res. 8 in the Senate on January 5th, 2001. Since Republicans won the presidency and thus the tie-breaking vote in the Senate by Vice President Cheney, the agreement gave Chairmanship to Republicans and evenly divided committee membership ratios, staff levels, and resources. Notably, it also gave both parties the authority to act as the presiding officer of the Senate, when the Vice President and President Pro Tempore are not present. This arrangement ended when former Senator James Jeffords (R-VT) left the Republican party to become an Independent and caucus with the Democrats. On June 6th, the Senate recognized the Democratic party as the Majority party, automatically reestablishing committee assignments to what they were in the prior Congress until a new resolution could be negotiated.

Why do we need to Negotiate this Agreement if Democrats have the Senate Tie-Breaking Vote? 

Senate rules designate the power to cast a tie-breaking vote on measures before the Senate floor to the Presiding Officer of the Senate (the Vice President); however, the rules do not allow the Presiding Officer to vote on tied measures in committee.  And as the rules stand, when a bill is tied in committee, it fails to advance to the full floor—killing the bill. 

Once Kamala Harris becomes Vice President on January 20th, she will be the tie-breaking vote on all Senate floor 50/50 splits. We must be clear that Democrats have a mandate not only to ensure a functional Senate, but to use their tie-breaking authority to ensure Democratic governing power in the Senate. 

CNN reported on January 19th that Senators Schumer and McConnell were starting to negotiate the terms of the power-sharing agreement. While the final proposal is not published yet, Majority Leader Schumer can and should install Democratc chairs of all committees and advance bills to the floor in the event that Republicans attempt to stonewall them in committees. We already know that Republicans will pretend to be offended by what they will claim are abuses of power. But these objections are hollow, and in light of the destruction McConnell has brought to the U.S. Senate, should be dismissed as bad-faith distractions.

We need Senator Schumer to stand firm in negotiating a favorable agreement for Democratic power in the Senate. It would be foolish to allow McConnell to continue to have unparalleled power in a split Senate. We must pressure our members to fight for and wield the governing power millions of grassroots organizers fought tirelessly to deliver in the 2020 elections.