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How a 50/50 Senate Would End Gridlock

Although chances for it are slim, an evenly divided Senate might produce more compromise than a body dominated by one party.

November 3, 2014

In 1986, Democrats captured eight Senate seats by a total margin of 125,000 votes. That’s right, eight states and the Senate majority were decided by a collective vote of 125,000 citizens — roughly the population of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One of those eight hairbreadth Democrats, by the way, was Harry Reid in Nevada.

My point in dredging up this artifact of Reagan era politics is not to claim that the Democrats will hold the Senate on Tuesday. But I do see 1986 as a cautionary reminder that elections can be plain weird. Too much faith in the political models of polling analysts like Nate Silver can lead to a widespread sense of faux certainty about an election that hasn’t happened yet.

Other than political consultants and television station owners, no one will mourn the end of the soul-deadening 2014 elections. By Tuesday, more than one million TV spots will have been aired in Senate races alone. Most of the Republican arguments (aside from fear-mongering over Ebola) are leftovers from the 2010 campaign. The Democratic playbook is even older — in the closing days of the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy was orating about the minimum wage, Social Security and medical care for the elderly.

Beyond pure partisanship, it’s hard to figure out what outcomes to root for on Tuesday night. Democratic control of the Senate would allow Barack Obama to continue to fill judicial and executive branch vacancies. But even Pollyanna on an optimistic day would find it hard to believe that anything in Washington would be improved by the continuation of the political status quo.

There are plausible arguments that Republican control of both houses of Congress would bring a belated sense of responsibility to the party of obstruction. Republicans like Ohio Senator Rob Portman and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have talked about areas of potential bipartisan compromise like immigration, free trade, tax reform and the budget.

That may be the intention of the Republican leadership in both the Senate and the House. Unfortunately, that vision clashes with the exaggerated expectations of the GOP’s activist base. If the election makes Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader, many conservatives will assume that the triumphant congressional Republicans will end Obamacare, eliminate most government regulations and defund agencies like EPA and the Department of Education.

This misunderstanding of the limits on congressional power when facing a recalcitrant president is bipartisan. After the 2006 off-year elections gave the Democrats control of Congress, many liberals naively assumed that the Iraq War was about to be over. This time around, conservative frustration with the pace of change in Washington will pressure Senate and House Republicans into more combative posturing. And many members of the GOP House Class of 2010 need no outside encouragement to go to the barricades against Obama.

So is there an electoral outcome that might improve life on the margins in Washington?

I can see the case for the 50–50 Senate. Despite the tilt in the late polls towards the Republicans, this split verdict remains a plausible outcome. For those who care about such things, the latest forecast from gives it an 11-percent probability.

One route would be if the Democrats won the tossup Senate races in New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen), North Carolina (Kay Hagan) and Alaska (a devilishly difficult state to poll where incumbent Mark Begich has invested heavily in a get-out-the-vote effort in remote areas). Throw in the triumph in Kansas of independent Greg Orman, who is likely to caucus with the Democrats. The 50th seat might be achieved if Mark Udall hung on in Colorado due a turnout increase from the switch to voting-by-mail. Or if Michelle Nunn prevailed in a January 6 runoff in Georgia. (The conventional wisdom that the Democratic vote would drop off in a runoff might not apply if the balance of the Senate depended on the outcome of a second balloting in Georgia).

Under such a 50–50 scenario, Joe Biden as vice president would cast the deciding vote in all deadlocks. That would mean that the current rules of the Senate would continue — eliminating the filibuster for all executive branch and most judicial appointments. Of course, there would probably be periodic negotiations with independent Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. But that’s how a legislative body is supposed to behave — through consultation rather than confrontation.

An evenly divided Senate would also empower its two true independents: Orman and Maine’s Angus King. (On the left wing of the Democratic Party, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is a different breed of independent). Both King and Orman would likely put a premium on comity and consensus rather than partisan towel-snapping. And since Harry Reid’s continued tenure as majority leader would depend on their votes, the independents would have the clout to enforce this mandate.

But the strongest case for a 50–50 Senate can be expressed in two words: Joe Biden.

While a divided Senate would not force the vice president to be on Capitol Hill for every vote, it would require him to keep in close touch with the legislative chamber in which he served for four decades. The importance of this is that Biden is the only figure in the Obama administration who understands how to negotiate on Capitol Hill. Even Mitch McConnell, in his only debate with Democratic rival Alison Lundergan Grimes, stressed the three fiscal deals that he hammered out with the vice president.

Yes, it is peculiar to argue that the best remedy for gridlock in Washington is a divided Senate. A 50–50 Senate would mirror American politics since the 2000 election, a dispiriting era during which neither party had a governing majority for long. Normally, deadlock on Capitol Hill would be a formula for fractiousness. But the details of such a divided Senate (particularly two independents and Biden’s expanded role) offer a glimmer of hope for 2015. And after a dismal congressional election season, any form of hope is worth two-and-a-half cheers. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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