Senate moves forward with 50-50 power-sharing agreement, tabling filibuster fight

Model for agreement is 2001 deal, but more details to come

Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., right, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., attend the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House chamber earlier this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., right, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., attend the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House chamber earlier this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 26, 2021 at 4:46pm

The Senate, split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, is moving forward with a power-sharing agreement after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell relented on an ultimatum over filibuster rules.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and McConnell had been in a standoff that had the potential to hobble President Joe Biden’s agenda and stymie legislative action.

“I am glad the Republican leader finally relented, and we can move forward now to organize the Senate, set up committees chairs and ranking members, and a process for moving bills and nominees to the floor from committees with an evenly divided number of members,” Schumer said on the floor Tuesday. “I’m glad we’re finally able to get the Senate up and running. My only regret is that it took so long.”

The Senate has been operating without a deal, which froze committees from the previous Congress with Republicans holding the majority and all chairmanships. That left Schumer in charge of the floor, while GOP committee heads, or at least those who did not retire and are still around, continued to run their panels.

The agreement, text of which has not yet been released, is modeled after the rules that governed the chamber the last time it was tied in 2001.

“Sen. Schumer and I will be able to adopt an organizing resolution that’s very close to exactly what was negotiated by Lott and Daschle after the 2000 election,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday, referring to the deal Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle cobbled together for the last evenly split Senate.

Like the 2001 agreement, it would provide for equal numbers of members on Senate committees, with a process for discharging bills and nominations that deadlock, effectively giving the Democrats a narrow advantage on setting the agenda on contentious issues.

It also provides for equal staffing levels and office space, which is made easier with the extensive remote work for many staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2001 deal included a provision that kept the majority and minority leaders at the time from using the process of filling the so-called amendment tree, a procedural tool that precludes the offering of amendments.

Schumer, at a news conference Tuesday, suggested this may be replicated in the latest deal, calling the Senate under McConnell “totally closed.” But majority leaders of both parties, including Democrat Harry Reid, regularly blocked amendments.

“I hope we can get a more open process,” Schumer said in response to a question about the amendment tree in the deal for the 117th Congress.

The holdup

The filibuster, the procedural tool that effectively requires a 60-vote margin for most legislation, was the major issue for McConnell that had prevented the Senate from moving forward and organizing itself to this point. In recent years, McConnell eliminated the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, while Reid killed the filibuster for lower-court judges and most executive nominees when he led the chamber.

Many Democrats have called for the elimination of the legislative filibuster, with their party in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. But McConnell was holding firm, wanting a promise from the new majority leader that the filibuster, which provides the Senate minority great sway over the agenda, would remain intact.

Democrats balked at McConnell’s request, calling for a power-sharing agreement that closely aligned with the 2001 framework. That gave the party with the vice presidency and that position’s tie-breaking powers control of the floor agenda, without any additional caveats or provisions.

McConnell backed down Monday night after Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona reiterated their long-standing opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

“I’m glad we stepped back from this cliff,” said McConnell, touting the preservation of the filibuster as a victory.

The path forward

The Senate power-sharing deal is expected to be codified in a resolution that the chamber is expected to agree to. Once adopted, committees can move forward and organize, with Democratic senators formally taking the gavels.

The Senate has already begun confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees, which is expected to continue. The chamber confirmed Janet Yellen on Monday to be Treasury secretary on an 84-15 vote and Antony Blinken on Tuesday to be secretary of State on a 78-22 vote.

The president’s first legislative priority is a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which he hopes to move with GOP support. But if it doesn’t gain traction on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats are already discussing using the budget reconciliation process to maneuver around the 60-vote requirement. That process allows certain tax and spending measures to move in the Senate with only a simple majority required for passage.

The Congressional Research Service provides a reminder that the 2001 agreement was largely unprecedented, not comprehensive and relatively fragile.

“The powersharing agreement in effect in the Senate from January to June of 2001 was an experiment,” reads a CRS report. “The success of any Senate organizational settlement depends in part upon its adaptability and that of its members to changing circumstances.”

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.