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Ask Civics 101: Who is the Senate Majority Leader in a 50/50 split?

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Sara Plourde for NHPR

Today we're answering a question about control of the U.S. Senate. Who becomes the Senate Majority Leader when no party has the majority?

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Submit it here.

With the Democrats picking up two seats after the runoff election in Georgia, the Senate will  have 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats after Inauguration Day. 

An evenly split Senate is rare in U.S. history. The first time it happened was in 1881; then again in 1953 and most recently in 2000. The party that takes the White House determines which party becomes the majority in the Senate because the Vice President acts as the tie-breaking vote. 

Even with the majority seat, though, the parties need to work together to make the Senate work. The leaders of both parties will first need to agree to a set of rules called the organizing resolution that determines everything from committee assignments, staffing, and budgets to even office space. 

These rules can take many forms. After the 2000 election delivered a 50/50 Senate, the senators agreed to share power. Committees and staff were split equally between both parties. If a tie vote occurred in committees, either the Senate majority or minority leader could bring the bill to the floor. 

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Majority control doesn’t necessarily make things easier for the President’s party in a 50/50 split, however. Minority parties often use the filibuster, an extended debate, to block legislation by preventing it from being brought to a vote. Filibusters became a regular feature of the Senate in the 19th century. Cloture, a Senate rule adopted in 1917, was put in place to end filibusters. It requires 60 votes to end debate on an issue and move to a vote, something that can be difficult to obtain in a split Senate.

The cloture rules have eroded in recent years, however. A simple majority of 51 votes is all that’s needed for presidential appointees and Supreme Court justices to be confirmed. 

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Erika Janik fell into radio after volunteering at Wisconsin Public Radio to screen listener calls. She co-founded and was the executive producer of “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio for seven years. Now she spins all the podcast plates for Outside/In and Civics 101.
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