Senate Power Sharing?

senate race 2000
Capitol Hill could provide a political train wreck of its own early next year.

Potential ground zero: the new Senate, which meets in January. The New York Times reports that the Democrats could grind the institution to a halt if there's a 50-50 tie with the Republicans, unless they receive an equal number of committee seats, and maybe even a few co-chairmanships.

Such a bipartisan power-sharing relationship in the Senate would be unprecedented in modern times. And the only way that a tie would even be possible is if two things happen: Republican George W. Bush wins the White House and Democrat Maria Cantwell defeats GOP incumbent Slade Gorton for the Senate seat in Washington State. Even then, Bush's running mate Dick Cheney would be able to break any 50-50 tie as vice president.

If Democrat Al Gore is the next president, the Republicans would retain an outright Senate majority with or without Gorton. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is Gore's running mate, would become vice president, and his state's GOP governor would appoint a fellow Republican to fill that Senate vacancy. If Gore loses but Gorton wins, the Republicans get 51 seats. If both Gore and Gorton win, the GOP will have 52 seats.

Still, Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota are openly talking about a tie scenario, including how they could filibuster the naming of committee assignments and chairmen.

"We can force deliberation on that as long as we have to," Daschle was quoted in the Times.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., would not publicly delve into the question of an even Senate split, saying he's confident that Gorton - now narrowly leading Cantwell with absentee votes still to be counted - would win re-election in Washington State.

Daschle said because of the Washington race, he and Lott had not discussed a 50-50 tie in detail. But he also expressed hope that the two parties could work out something if it came to that.

"We really have every expectation that we are going to be able to resolve this in a bipartisan, practical way," he told the Times. "I feel confident he (Lott) wants to find the most affable way through this."

Daschle added that although a Vice President Cheney could break Senate ties in favor of the Republicans under a Bush administration, the GOP would also find it difficult to shut down filibusters on its own.

"The vice president is not a member of the Senate," he said. "If that membership is split 50-50, there is no recourse but to allow the committees to be split 50-50."

"My initial feeling is that there ought to be co-chairs," he said.

That sentiment did not sit well with some Senate Republicans.

"The majority always rules," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "That's the way it always worked."

Under Senate tradition, that's true, but the rules of the Senate say nothing about how committees sould be organized or how their chairmen should be chosen. And so, should a tie and a bipartisan power-sharing relationship indeed occur, the Senate may have to look to how state legislatures have handled similar situations in recent times.

For example, Indiana's House in 1988 was so divided that it settled on two speakers - a Democrat and a Republican - to run the chamber on alternate days, with every committee split evenly between the two parties.