Democrats claim gavels as Senate adopts organizing resolution

New secretary of the Senate tapped as part of changing of guard

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., leaves a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., leaves a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2021 at 6:31pm

The Senate broke out of limbo Wednesday, adopting a power-sharing resolution that allows for committees to organize and Democrats to take the gavels after a month of tenuous and divided control.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer brought the resolution to the floor Wednesday evening, and it was adopted by unanimous consent.

“I am happy to report this morning that the leadership of both parties have finalized the organizing resolution for the Senate,” the New York Democrat said on the floor earlier in the day.

Schumer named the Democratic members of each committee Tuesday evening, which signaled that negotiations with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were coming to a close.

“Committees can promptly set up and get to work with Democrats holding the gavels,” Schumer said Wednesday.

The agreement is modeled after the rules that governed the chamber the last time it was tied, in 2001.

Similar to that deal 20 years ago, Schumer has agreed to limit the use of a procedural tool that would preclude the offering of amendments, or filling the so-called amendment tree.

“I am a strong supporter of the right of Senators to offer amendments, and commit to increase dramatically the number of member-initiated amendments offered in the 117th Congress,” Schumer said in a written colloquy with McConnell. “I am also opposed to limiting amendments by ‘filling the tree’ unless dilatory measures prevent the Senate from taking action and leave no alternative.”

Like the 2001 agreement, this deal provides 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 committee budgets, staffing levels and office space, which would be negotiated and agreed on by each committee’s chair and ranking member.

“This power-sharing agreement is almost identical to the 2001 agreement and will allow the Senate to be fairly run as an evenly split body,” McConnell said in a statement.

Garland awaits

Newly minted Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin is ready for action.

“I’m chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And we want to move as quickly as possible to Attorney General Merrick Garland, and start our hearings on a long list of legislation,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters Wednesday.

He had hoped to bring Garland’s nomination before the panel on Monday, Feb. 8, before the start of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, but that is unlikely. Durbin plans to abide by a rule to give the minority enough lead time for a hearing.

“Now the rules are, I have to give them one week’s notice, so we’ve got to find the other closest time and best opportunity,” he said.

New Senate secretary

As part of the day’s organizing, Schumer named longtime Senate aide Sonceria “Ann” Berry to serve as the next secretary of the Senate.

Berry would be the first African American and eighth woman to serve in the position that was created in 1789, according to a statement from Schumer’s office. She begins the job on March 1, taking over from Julie Adams.

Berry, the current deputy chief of staff for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has worked in the Senate for more than four decades. In her long career, she has also worked for Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, John Edwards of North Carolina, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Howell Heflin of Alabama.

Leahy said no one was more qualified to manage the many duties of the Senate secretary than Berry.

“She knows the Senate, she honors the Senate, and she respects the roles of all of those who hold office here. She is one of the most decent people I have ever known. She is in public service for all of the right reasons,” the Vermont Democrat said.

Schumer said he was “ecstatic” about the move.

“This is a vital role that not only oversees key personnel, but also aids in the institution’s overall effectiveness,” he said in a statement.

Adams, who has had the job since 2015, was a longtime McConnell aide and was named to the post by the Kentucky Republican when he became the majority leader in 2015.

The secretary of the Senate’s job has a variety of both administrative and legislative functions. The secretary oversees positions that range from clerks and parliamentarians to librarians and printers. One of the most noticeable jobs is administering payroll for Senate employees.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.