The possibility of a John Kerry victory in November already has some aides and Members nervously eyeing the possibility that the early days of a new administration could be more chaotic than even the 106th Congress, when the Senate’s majority flipped twice within five months.
If a Kerry triumph provided an extra boost to Democratic chances of reclaiming the Senate, a net one-seat gain in the chamber would mean Vice President John Edwards could provide the 51st and tie-breaking vote for the purposes of organizing the chamber.
But under that very scenario, a whole series of twists and turns would likely take place, not the least of which is that the Senate majority could flip back and forth while what still seems likely to be a GOP-controlled House provides the aggressive opposition.
Unless Democrats take over the Senate with a clear and convincing majority of at least 52 seats — a feat most political prognosticators say is unlikely — the fight over selecting Kerry’s replacement in the Bay State could leave the Senate in a state of paralysis.
Of course, if President Bush wins re-election and Republicans retain control of the chamber, such talk would be rendered moot. Then again, even if Bush wins re-election, the Senate could still end up at 50-50, setting off another bitter bout of reorganizing similar to the weekslong negotiations after the 2000 elections left the chamber deadlocked.
“You have to deal with a treacherous minefield,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who dealt with his own minefield as then-Majority Leader in the early days of the 106th Congress. That was followed a few months later by another tempestuous round of reorganization after Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the GOP and gave Democrats the majority.
“I’ve given up trying to figure out these situations,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who went from being Judiciary chairman to ranking member and back to chairman in a six-month span in 2001.
A similar back-and-forth rotation early next year could leave Leahy out of power when it comes to overseeing hearings for a hypothetical President Kerry’s nomination for attorney general, but back in charge as chairman if a Supreme Court vacancy occurred later in the summer of 2005.
The plot lines are varied, and most Senators shied away from openly discussing such hypothetical scenarios, particularly ones in which their party loses the White House or the chamber’s majority. But the potential fallout from this fall’s elections could be felt in the chamber for months — and potentially years — to come.
The 50-49 Senate
With Bush’s standing in the polls remaining stagnant and a few GOP retirements, Senate Democrats have grown increasingly optimist about their chances of winning the majority on Nov. 2. While Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) regularly proclaims that if the election were held today Democrats would end up with 52 seats, that result would require Democrats to essentially run the table this fall.
Perhaps a more realistic scenario for Democrats is an election resulting in a 50-50 split with Edwards breaking the tie, allowing for a loss of two among their five open seats in the South and a few pickups in open GOP seats in the West.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.