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Published on January 24, 2021 12:03 AM

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How does a 50-50 Senate work? Two leaders who tried it explain
arty leaders in today's 50-50 Senate are haggling over a power-sharing agreement, and that's no surprise. Only twice in American history has the Senate had a dead-even split: in a special session in 1881, and exactly 20 years ago, on the heels of a contentious presidential election decided by the Supreme Court.

In that charged atmosphere, Sens. Trent Lott, Republican from Mississippi, and Tom Daschle, Democrat from South Dakota, managed to work out a way to share power and run the Senate. It wasn't an easy deal to make, as the former senators describe in an interview with the Monitor, but it also wasn't a complicated one.

Because a Republican, George W. Bush, was in the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney could break tie votes in the GOP's favor, Senator Lott became the majority leader and controlled the agenda on the Senate floor. Republicans also chaired the committees. But the parties were given an equal number of members on the committees, and if a committee vote was tied, either party leader had the option to bring the legislation to the floor.

The agreement wound up being short-lived, ending in June 2001 after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent and caucus with the Democrats. At that point, Senator Daschle became majority leader, though still working closely with his Mississippi colleague, especially when 9/11 hit three months later.

Now Sens. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, say they want to use the 2001 agreement as their model. But Senator McConnell is insisting that the deal also include a protection of the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation (i.e., the filibuster). Some Democrats are pushing to get rid of the filibuster in order to be able to move legislation with a simple majority vote.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (left), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walk to the chamber after collaborating on an agreement in the Senate on a two-year, almost $400 billion budget deal that would provide Pentagon and domestic programs with huge spending increases, at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 7, 2018. Senators Lott and Daschle speak with one voice when it comes to working out an agreement, as well as handling an article of impeachment against former President Donald Trump that will be delivered to the Senate on Monday: Act with urgency. There's no time to lose in solving the country's problems.

Q: What will a 50-50 Senate mean for the president, his agenda, and his ability to govern?

Daschle: It's primarily an opportunity to move his agenda. The majority leader, Chuck Schumer, has a lot of authority deciding what that legislative schedule is going to look like. Obviously, also it will mean that people in his party have the chairmanships in the committees.

That said, I think it's important to emphasize that in a 50-50 Senate, you really have to have bipartisanship to be able to move that agenda. It's one thing to schedule something, it's another to get it done. And I don't think you'll get it done unless you can see some real effort put into meaningful bipartisanship.

Q: What lessons does the power-sharing agreement you worked out hold for Senate leaders today?

Lott: One of the advantages that we had is that Tom and I had already been through some difficult things. We had a good relationship. I respected him. I trusted him. We did get a lot accomplished in the five months after we reached that agreement.

The components were pretty simple, although they weren't easy to agree on because we had to sell whatever we agreed on through our conferences. Tom's folks didn't want to make a deal, and my people felt like they'd done too much.