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VERIFY: While there's precedent for determining a majority leader in a 50-50 Senate, there aren't official rules

Last time the Senate was split, the party of the Vice President was awarded the majority leader under a powersharing agreement.
Credit: AP
Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock wave to the crowd during a campaign rally in Augusta, Ga., Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Democrats Ossoff and Warnock are challenging incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election on Jan. 5. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)

Currently, both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats, lead in the two Senate runoffs held in Georgia earlier this week. If the results hold without massive shifts from recounts, both will win and put the Senate at 50-50.

In that case, the Vice President will get the tiebreaking vote. But Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown over the last few years that the majority leader has a lot of say in what gets put to a vote in the Senate in the first place.

So if the Senate is split evenly at 50-50, who gets to be the majority leader? That’s what some people on social media and across the country have been asking as the results of the runoffs become more clear.


THE QUESTION

Who is the majority leader in a 50-50 Senate?


THE ANSWER

Since the position isn’t a position officially mandated by law, there aren’t definitive rules for who becomes majority leader. Previous precedent, however, would suggest it goes to whichever party the Vice President is from. That would make the majority leader Chuck Schumer once Biden takes office and Harris’s seat is filled.


WHAT WE FOUND

The U.S. Senate’s website explains the majority leader speaks for the Senate as an institution, schedules business on the floor by calling bills from the calendar and keeps members of their party advised about the daily legislative program.

That same webpage also explains that the majority leader is not an official position established by the Constitution. The first floor leaders in the Senate were established in 1920 by the Democrats and 1925 by the Republicans. These leaders are elected by their parties and the Senate says they “evolved out of necessity.”

Therefore, there’s some fluidity to it.

The last time the Senate was split 50-50 was immediately following the 2000 election. A footnote on the Senate’s timeline explains that between January 3, 2001 and January 20, 2001, Democrat Tom Daschle was the majority leader. Then, when Republican Dick Cheney was inaugurated Vice President on January 20, the majority leader became Republican Trent Lott. However, the Democrats took back control of the Senate and Tom Daschle returned to his role as majority leader in June when a Republican senator from Vermont announced he was becoming an independent and caucusing with the Democrats.

But, as a Congressional Research Service report shows, the role of majority leader at the time they were split 50-50 was decided through a powersharing agreement made by the Democrats and Republicans. This agreement still recognized the majority leader’s privilege to control the Senate’s agenda, but the agreement noted “Senate Rules do not prohibit the right of the

Democratic Leader, or any other Senator, to move to proceed to any item.” It also required both party leaders to seek an equal balance of the interests of both parties when scheduling Senate business.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, which was co-founded by the very same Tom Daschle involved in that powersharing agreement, says “in a 50-50 Senate, the leader of the vice president’s party would likely be recognized as majority leader, as has been past practice.” Note that it says this will “likely” be the case. There’s no guarantee, and a similar agreement to the one made in 2000 might end up being made to address the split Senate.

If Warnock and Ossoff do officially win Georgia and are sworn in before inauguration day, Mitch McConnell would likely remain Senate majority leader until then. That’s because there would be 50 Republican Senators, 50 Senators caucusing with the Democrats (two of them are officially independents) and Republican Mike Pence would have the tiebreaking vote. In fact, McConnell may continue to remain majority leader for some time after that because Democrats will only have 49 caucus members once Kamala Harris vacates her seat to become Vice President. Democrats would then have the majority once a new Democrat senator is appointed to fill her seat, and previous precedent would mean Democrat Chuck Schumer would become majority leader under a powersharing agreement.

But this isn’t a guarantee as there are no official rules for establishing the majority leader in a 50-50 Senate. 

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