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Legislative Process 101—Power-Sharing In The Senate

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 yearly years of the Obama presidency).

Negotiating a favorable power-sharing agreement for Democratic leadership is a critical first step.

What is a Power-Sharing Agreement? 

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). But what happens when neither party holds the majority and the Senate is gridlocked in a tie? 

A Power-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 (S.Res.), which would need to garner a simple majority vote.

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.

Will the Senate Agree to Power-Sharing? 

While there is precedent of Senate leaders preemptively negotiating an agreement to avoid a gridlocked chamber, we all know the self-proclaimed “Grim Reaper,” Mitch McConnell, will stop at nothing to ensure Democrats have no control over the Senate. McConnell has refused to accept the results of the 2020 Presidential Elections and it very well could be that he refuses to acknowledge a 50/50 split Senate requires a power-sharing agreement.

Even if McConnell does acknowledge the need for a power-sharing agreement, it will be critical that Senator Schumer, Vice President Harris, and Senate Democrats use the authority and the mandate they have to ensure a functional Senate. Once Kamala Harris becomes Vice President on January 20th, she will be the tie-breaking vote on all 50/50 splits. This means Democrats 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.