By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
Vice President Kamala Harris voted six times to break Senate ties this week. That brings her total to 23 ties broken, a record pace. She’s already third all-time, behind only John C. Calhoun (31 from 1825-32) and John Adams (29 from 1789-97).
What she’s voted on tells an important story about the Senate. None of it has been regular legislation. It’s all on measures regarding the budget or other fiscal matters falling under the rubric of reconciliation, and then on nominations and procedural votes on nominations. Contrast that to George H.W. Bush when he was vice president in the 1980s: Six of his seven tiebreaking Senate votes were on amendments to bills or motions relating to amendments.
These days, far fewer amendments are considered. And thanks to the filibuster-everything Senate, those amendments that do get offered and reach a vote usually need 60 to pass, making the vice-president irrelevant.
On the other hand, ties on nomination votes are now far more frequent. Nominations draw far more partisan opposition now than they used to, and after the Democratic majority changed Senate procedures in October 2013 to end filibusters for most nominations, 50 votes plus the vice-president’s has been all it takes to move a nomination forward.
The second point here is about the so-called RINOs — those relatively moderate conservatives accused by critics of being Republicans in Name Only — and their moderately liberal Democratic cousins. The point? They basically don’t exist. That’s why there are so many tie votes in the present Congress. With 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, there are going to be a lot of 50-50 votes, with all the Democrats lining up against all the Republicans.
Now, it’s also true that there have only been 23 ties, which means that a lot of nominations have been confirmed without that 50/50 split. In a few cases, that happened when absent senators gave Democrats a temporary majority. More often, it was because at least one Republican supported a nominee. The opposite also happens, with one or more Democrats joining all of the Republicans in opposing a nominee, although in those cases the nomination usually is withdrawn before a vote. What hardly ever happens is any overlap; that is, a vote in which a handful of Democrats votes with most of the Republicans while a handful of Republicans votes with most of the Democrats.
Or to put it another way: If the two least conservative Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — support a nominee of President Biden, then it’s almost certain that the least liberal Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, will also support him or her. And if Manchin opposes a nominee, then Collins and Murkowski will as well. That’s because Manchin in his Senate floor votes appears to be considerably more liberal than Collins and Murkowski.
If Collins or Murkowski were to be replaced by a Democrat, then the Democratic majority would suddenly get a lot more solid. Some of the failed Biden nominations (and there haven’t been many) would have been confirmed; there’s a good chance that one or more major Democratic bill would have passed. If Manchin were to be replaced by a Republican, the Democratic majority would be gone, and with it most of Biden’s judicial and executive branch nominations, and any hope for most of the Democratic agenda.
A lot of people resist accepting that basic fact about Congress; one that applies generally at all levels of U.S. politics. Partisans find the Manchins and Murkowskis frustrating or worse. That’s understandable, but it’s usually the case that senators (including Manchin and Collins) who lean closer to the political center are probably the best their party can hope for from certain states. Meanwhile, people who don’t like parties often treat those relative moderates as better than the average politician because they don’t always vote with their parties.
The truth, however, is that this kind of senator or member of the House of Representatives can be pragmatic or not, productive or not, effective for a district or not. And so can those who are in the ideological mainstream of their parties, or even those who are extremely liberal or conservative. They just get a lot more attention than others. At least when it’s a 50/50 Senate.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.