What should we expect from a 50-50 Senate?

January 20th, 2021

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill. It’s pretty much a fortress downtown, with over 25,000 National Guard troops stationed across DC.

Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president tomorrow shortly after 12pm EST. The inauguration will be a mix of in-person and virtual. Vice President Mike Pence will attend. Outgoing President Donald Trump will not.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the two new senators from Georgia, are expected to be sworn in tomorrow afternoon, along with Alex Padilla, who has been appointed to replace incoming Vice President Kamala Harris. This will officially bring the Senate to a 50-50 tie, with Harris having the ability to cast the tie breaking vote.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer are reportedly working on a power sharing agreement that will govern how the Senate operates. What McConnell agrees to will tell us a lot about how the Senate GOP plans to comport itself over the next two years. This is particularly true of committees. While committee ratios and budgets are always negotiated between the parties at the beginning of the Congress, the 50-50 split requires the presence of an operating agreement which will determine, for example, how and if nominees are reported from committee.

In the presence of a clear majority, nominees are reported out with a majority vote. However, in a split Senate, it is possible that nominees would not receive a majority of committee votes, and thus never make it to the Senate floor. This gives McConnell considerable leverage. Democrats are going to want their nominees to be considered on the floor. But Democrats have also just spent the last year pledging to blow up the institution by nuking the legislative filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, adding DC and Puerto Rico as states (along with 4 new Democratic senators).

McConnell has the ability to trade easier processing of Democrat nominees for a standing order which would bar any attempt by the Democrats to overturn the legislative filibuster, or other attempts to fundamentally change how the Senate functions. In other words, if McConnell is going to concede to easier processing of Democrat nominees, he should get something for it — a procedural commitment that nuking the legislative filibuster would be barred. And if Democrats break their word, the concession from Republicans for easier committee processing of their nominees will evaporate.

This is, broadly speaking, reflective of the power the Senate Republican conference will have generally. Much of what the Democrats want to do will require either their consent to expedite the process, or their votes (at least 10 Republicans will have to vote with Democrats to overcome a filibuster on most legislation).

How easy or difficult the Senate Republicans make it for their counterparts will indicate whether they are a party interested in using their leverage to push their policy priorities while blocking others, or if they are retreating back to a status quo where Republicans feign helplessness and resignation in the face of Democrats doing whatever they want.

Key areas to watch:

  • The details of the power sharing agreement between McConnell and Schumer

  • How the Senate intends to process Biden’s request for a $1.9 trillion stimulus package

  • If any Republican intends to push back on Biden’s planned amnesty for at least 11 million illegal residents, which is already generating new caravans of migrants heading toward the US border


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One More Thing…

If you missed it, CPI’s Government Affairs Director Phil Reboli makes the case for why Members of Congress should be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights in the US Capitol.


Rachel Bovard
Director for Policy