Opinion | How a simple twist of fate could end Democratic control of the Senate

The list of things that threaten to end Democratic control of the Senate is well known: the story goes that the White House party usually loses its seats in the midterm elections. The president’s low approval ratings in the battlefield states – even lower than his weak national ratings – portend trouble. Voters now say they prefer Republican control of Congress. And in several states, Republicans have complicated the voting process and transferred control over the counting to supporters.

They all threaten to put the Republican Party in charge of the Senate after the 2022 elections, ending the Democratic majority in just two years. But because of the fragility of this majority, even now – a 50-50 equality, broken only by the decisive vote of Kamala Harris as vice president – the end of democratic control may come sooner. Much earlier.

First, the tension between West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and more progressive elements in his party carries the potential for desertion from the ranks, even if he rejects such a move. Those with a good memory may recall what happened in an equally divided Senate in 2001: Jim Jeffords of Vermont, enraged by the tax plans of the Bush administration, announced that he would become independent and rally with the Democrats, suddenly reversing control of the Senate and by forcing Tom Daschle the majority leader before the 2002 midterm elections, Manchin would not even have to cross the aisle; if he simply left the Democratic caucus, the Republicans would suddenly have a ruling majority.

But there is another possibility, which should also force Democrats to reach out to Maalox: accidental fate could transfer the Senate to the Republicans not next January, but next summer, or next month, or next week. Disease or death could well provoke a political earthquake, almost instantly transferring control of the country’s highest legislative body.

The states have a number of laws to replace the outgoing senator, but the vast majority – 37 – call on the governor to choose a successor. Of these, only seven require the governor to choose someone from the same party. Thus, there are 30 states where the governor can choose any new senator he or she wants.

In practice, this means that in nine states (as of January 15), a Republican governor has the power to replace one or two Democratic senators. If any Democratic Senator in any of these states had to leave office, the Republican Governor of that state could appoint a replacement for the Republican Party, which would immediately give the party a majority in the 51-49 Senate.

When Glenn Youngkin becomes Governor of Virginia later this month, he will join a group of state GOP governors with two Democratic senators: Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia, and Arizona.

The other two states, Ohio and Montana, each have one Democratic senator and one Republican governor. (Of course, there is another set of states with opposite dynamics: Louisiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas have a Democratic governor and two Republican senators; the other three, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have one Republican senator with Democratic governors. ., Of the aforementioned states, only Maryland, Arizona, North Carolina, and Kentucky are guaranteed to retain their seats under state law.)

In January last year, worries about a change of senator erupted when Pat Leahy, 80, a Democrat from Vermont, was admitted to hospital. If health forces him to step down, who will Republican Gov. Phil Scott name? Scott was as “non-Republican” Republican as anyone else, and Leahy recovered quickly. But a broader issue that may be awkward to think about remains.

And that problem is compounded by the erosion of the collegiality and politeness that once defined much of the way the Senate worked. In an earlier era, an evenly divided body dealt with an unstable balance of power by dividing it or adjusting. Today, such prospects seem more like a pastoral fantasy.

It can seem painful to think too specifically about what happens when a senator dies or is forced to leave office due to illness. But in a sense it is irresponsible not to. While only three senators have died in the line of duty over the past decade, the actuarial reality – 26 senators aged 70 and over – is noteworthy. (Fate, of course, knows no age; Robert Kennedy was 42 when he was killed; Paul Wellstone was 58 when he died in a car accident.) Moreover, there have been times when the Senate has lost a significant number of its members. In 1953, the 83rd Congress began with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats and one Independent Representative of the 48 states, which then formed the Union. During the session at least nine senators died in the line of duty and another resigned.

What happened when there was such a close vote at the time? On several occasions, the appointed senator was indeed from the other side. But then the Senate was a completely different place – and in fact, its power did not actually change hands.

When Ohio Republican Robert Taft died in office in July 1953, Ohio Gov. Frank Lausch replaced him with Democrat Thomas Burke. That gave the Democrats a 48–47 majority, but independent Senator Wayne Morse, who left the GOP due to his antipathy to Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, voted to have the GOP control the House for the sake of courtesy. and continuity.

Other deaths during the session would again give Democrats a one-vote majority, but Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson never pushed for it. Why not? First, Johnson was well aware of the popularity of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and wanted to position his party as a cooperative. Indeed, he was smart enough to see that some of Ike’s fiercest opponents in the Senate did not come from Democrats, but from more conservative Republicans. Second, the filibuster rule and the Republican in the White House would have effectively prevented Johnson from adopting anything resembling a Democratic legislative agenda. In terms of power over judicial confirmation, the trial in the 1950s did not have any of the biased consequences that it has today. Finally, Washington’s relative collegiality meant that in an evenly divided Senate, Johnson could win concessions on issues such as committee appointments in exchange for not challenging Republican organizational control.

It so happened that in November 1954, the Democrats gained control of the Senate, a control they would hold for the next 26 years. Since then, not a single senator’s death has changed the quantitative control in the House (although it nearly happened when Tim Johnson, Democrat from South Dakota was affected by cerebral hemorrhage in 2006).

Today if the republican governor sent a party member to replace the deceased Democrat, it’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell – or any other Republican leader – would agree to let Democrats retain the power to organize the Senate. And if asked from a bipartisan perspective, when Jeffords left the GOP in 2001 and announced that he would join the Democratic convention, did Daschle give up his party’s chance to win a majority?

It is this combination of an evenly divided Senate and the scorched earth of today’s political battles that makes this exercise more than painful speculation. Governors have been choosing their party members instead of senators from another party for decades. (This happens even in national tragedies: when Democratic icon Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller replaced him with Republican Charles Goodell.) In more than 200 cases over 100 years ago, governors only named a replacement three times. from the other side.

Now, however, with a Senate majority hanging in the balance, this traditional governorship looms as a potentially fatal blow to democratic control next year. (Faced with the potential change of power brought about by a sudden vacancy in the Senate, would McConnell imitate Lyndon Johnson and hold his hand by allowing Democrats to retain organizational control of the Senate?

One Ps: This threat to Democratic dominance in the Senate is not the most extreme possibility. The 25th Amendment describes in detail how our system deals with a president who cannot fulfill his duties: the vice president and most Cabinet members can draw that conclusion, in which case the vice president will temporarily take over the presidency. office.

But what happens if vice president becomes unable to carry out official duties? If she or he gets sick or seriously injured, there is no mechanism to turn the job over to someone else – which means there will be no one in the 50-50 Senate to break the draw. (If that sounds outrageous, remember that it was only this week that we learned that Harris was at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee when an undetected bomb lay outside the building on January 6, 2021.)

Is there anything comforting in such thoughts? Well, that makes it much easier to speculate about Joe Manchin’s possible desertion.



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