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Power Sharing in the Senate

December 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Senator Daschle and the Democrats could actually hold majority for 17 days in January. While Al Gore is still Vice President, he would technically be the tie-breaking President of the Senate as well. Joining us tonight to talk about power sharing in the Senate, are lawmakers from both parties: Democrats, Harry Reid of Nevada, the number two Democrat, and Patty Murray of Washington State; and Republicans Phil Gramm of Texas, and Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Senator Gramm, you were once a Democrat, as quietly as it’s kept. What is your sense of what 50/50 governing would mean?

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: I think would be unworkable. We’ve organized the Congress 106 times; it’s never happened. We’ve had a tie in the number of members, the chamber before. That tie has been broken by the Vice President, so how the new Congress will be organized that there will be an organizing resolution set up by the majority leader. It’s amendable. The Democrats can offer a substitute. They’ll be a vote. If all members of the two parties vote with their party leadership, there would be a tie vote that would be broken by the Vice President. I don’t believe that all the Democrats will vote for a resolution trying to impose some sharing of power, but I believe and am confident that every Republican will vote so that there is a Republican majority, I believe it will be one vote on each committee, Republicans will be the chairmen. We will have a Republican Vice President to vote. It’s easy to predict 51 to 50. That’s a majority.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Senator Reid, the point that Senator Phil Gramm makes if George W. Bush is the president Dick Cheney is the tie breaker you have a Republican majority. And if Vice President Gore is the president and Senator Joseph Lieberman retains his Senate seat or gives it up and filled by a Republican you still have a Republican majority. How can you press for this kind of power sharing?

SEN. HARRY REID: We’ll take the hypothetical but we’re going to wind up 50/50. Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that Bush is going to be President. If we do that, it takes simple mathematics to understand that 50 and 50 is equal. Our rules say that in committees it should reflect what the membership of the Senate is. It’s very clear that should be 50/50. We’re going to have 50 Senators that are Democrat and 50 that are Republicans; we’re going to have our on committees equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. We feel that there should be equal funding, equal staffing; we feel the Conference Committee should be equal. We feel we should have an opportunity to look at who is going to be the secretary of Senate, who is going to be the sergeant-at-arms. I think most of us are pleased with Reverend Ogilvie, and he will remain the chaplain. But I think that Republicans are in denial if they think that they are going to be in the majority. They’re not in the majority, and, simply stated, in response to my good friend Phil Gramm it’s not as simple as setting it up and having Democrats vote one way and Republicans vote the other and then see if the Vice President will break the tie. For organizational matters you have to have enough to… you have to 60 votes. They don’t have 60 votes, and there is no way that we’re going to get ten Republicans and they are not going to get ten Democrats to break that. So we’re going to be here in a situation where we have to do what’s fair. The fair thing is to have the Senate Committee structure divided just like the Senate equally.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Shelby, you also are a former Democrat. Now, when you listen to what Senator Reid just said, how can you make the case to the American people that this Senate is going to be able to get anything done?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, that’s the real question. Will we? I hope we will. A lot of us are planning to reach across the aisle with our colleagues and put the interest of the country first. I believe early on it’s going to be whether we can work with our Democratic friends assuming that Bush is elected President of the United States and sworn in and we have a 50/50 Senate and Vice President. If we do, we have control, because he votes in the case of a tie. I think we ought to have equitable sharing. I think we should look for bipartisan solutions to a lot of things. But at the end of the day some party has to have a majority of the committee –even one — to make the process work.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Murray, the reason you are even in Washington right now is because you’re in the middle of a lame duck session because you couldn’t get the budget passed. Do you think that this kind of standoff could continue now that there’s an even narrower margin in the Senate?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: It could but doesn’t have to. I think if all of us step back and look at the message voters send us, they didn’t send an overwhelming majority of Democrats or a majority of Republicans. They split us evenly, 50/50, and I think one of the messages we ought to be hearing is that they want to us work together. They want to us work fairly and they want us to move forward on the nation’s agenda; and we can do that by splitting our committees 50/50 and by working across the aisle, as Senator Shelby said, to work with each other on what we agree on. There certainly will be issues we disagree on and we’ll have to set those aside. They probably won’t get done in the next session of Congress. But there is a lot we can agree on — on the budget and appropriations bills if we take the time to listen to what the American people said, which is we want you to work together.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Gramm, how do you envision this working – with a one vote majority in each committee? How would that work?

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: Well, it’s going to work the way it has always worked. In 1953, there was a tie vote on organizing the Senate. The Republican Vice President broke the tie. The committees were organized with one more Republican than Democrat on every committee and a Republican was chairman. What the Democrats are asking for is something that has no precedent in 106 Congresses. It has never happened before. It is unworkable government. And let me explain why. If we had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the Banking Committee, I would be chairman but I would be chairman without any authority. I would have responsibility without authority — that is unworkable government. We work on the basis of precedent, and I don’t believe that every Democrat will vote to break precedent. I don’t believe they’ll get 50 votes to override a reasonable organization of the Senate where we end supermajorities on committee. That’s call for by the election, and we will have one more Republican than Democrat on every committee — we will have I think a fair sharing of staff. I think we will be forced to reach across the aisle to pass anything. But we live on precedent and that’s why we have a system that works.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Gwen, if I could interject…

GWEN IFILL: I was going to just ask you to respond. Senator Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID: Thank you very much. Again, Phil and the others — Republicans are in denial. Not all Republicans; I had to two senior Republicans come to me today and say they agree with us – that they feel there should be a 50/50 sharing. It’s not only these unnamed Senators but take for example, Alan Simpson, one of the persons we respect on both sides of the aisle. He said last Friday that he felt that the American people would demand a 50/50 split. He further went on to say that he believed there should be a consideration to sharing chairmanship — alternating a year at a time. This is something that Phil talks about there hasn’t been precedent. This is the first time in the history of the country that we have had an elected Senate that’s evenly divided. We have had people that have switched parties like my two Republican friends here, and we’ve had people become independents that’s thrown the make-up of the Senate off like Wayne Morris did in the 50′s, but this is the first time we’ve had an elected Senate that’s evenly divided. Again simple math — 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans – that means equality.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Shelby, you wanted to say something.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Yes. I have been on the Intelligence Committee for six years and chaired the committee for the last four years. We have the only bipartisan committee that I know of in the House or the Senate. We try work together. We have a chairman and vice chairman. We reach across party lines. We look at the interest of the country. I believe, though, at the end of the day you have to have a one vote majority. If you don’t, the system will not work; it will break down.

SEN. HARRY REID: The Ethics Committee is divided 50/50. The chairman, co-chairman, Indian Affairs Committee is set up so that you have a chair and vice chair. This is not something that’s precedent setting. We’ve done this before.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Senator Murray back into this, because on the other side of the capital, Senator Murray, the House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay, was – you were talking earlier about the possibilities of bipartisanship and working together – this is what he was quoted as saying, we have the House; we have the Senate; we have the White House, which means we have the agenda. Where do you see room for cooperation there?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, that’s one Congressman talking. I think there are a number of Senators who agree with Harry Reid and I and others who believe that the 50/50 split means that our committees should be 50/50 and that we should share the making of the agenda, the budgets and all the decisions that go in with that. I would agree that if Bush becomes President, certainly Dick Cheney will preside over the Senate and be there to take any tie-breaking votes, but that doesn’t occur in committees. In committees we can make it work with 50/50, with the chairmen’s working across the aisle to make sure that at least one Democratic Senator is accommodated in order to get a bill out. And I think that is what the message of a 50/50 split is.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Gramm, is there room in this search for some way to accommodate each other for something that goes father perhaps than bipartisanship, something called say constructive partisanship? Is there room for that?

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: Oh, look. I think we’re going to have to work together to pass anything. Any committee chairman is an idiot if they don’t write bills that will get at least one Democrat vote on the floor in the Senate. But we have a vote on organizing the Senate. The Majority Leader sends a motion and that motion will go to the floor, the Democrats can amend it but the idea that the Democrats are going to filibuster and not let the Senate operate when the vote on that resolution is 51 to 50, I think in the end will not stand up. I don’t speak for any Democrats, but I don’t believe that they have every Democrat member of the Senate that is willing to vote to break precedent and demand something that has never existed before. If in 106 Congresses it has never been done before, I think that’s a pretty good indication it probably won’t work. In 1953, there were an equal number of votes for the Democrats and Republicans. The Republican Vice President broke the tie, and the Republicans organized the Senate — a Republican was Majority Leader. The Republicans were chairmen, and there was one more Republican than Democrat on every committee. That’s the precedent; that’s exactly what’s going to happen here.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s ask Senator Reid, who does speak for Democrats, whether you’re willing to filibuster issues or committee organization or control of the Senate in order to get your way.

SEN. HARRY REID: First of all understand that we’re not trying to get our way; we’re trying to get what is fair. The Senate is divided with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, and it’s not a question of getting our way; it’s getting what we feel is fair and what the American public – certainly they can do that math also. We know the situation in 1953 came about as a result of a Republican Senator switching parties. He became an independent; then he became a Democrat. That was a different thing. We have had an elective Senate that’s divided 50/50. I would also say that the burden is on the Republicans. If, in fact the scenario goes through we have a Republican President and a House that’s evenly divided almost, I think it is very important that they understand and not be in denial that the Senate is not their majority. I would also say when we get over this hump I think there is real possibilities of doing some constructive things for the country. That’s divided 50/50. I think the people of this country in Nevada, Washington, Alabama, and Texas have said to work together for a change. We can do that with the Senate divided 50/50.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Shelby, are the Republicans, as Senator Reid says, are you in denial?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Oh, I think absolutely not. But I’ll say this publicly and to the nation, if the Democrats were in the situation that we hope we will be 50/50 plus a Vice President to break a tie, they ought to have one vote, in my opinion, on every committee, because they would have the majority and that’s what the precedent that Senator Gramm has been talking about says.

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: And that’s what they would demand, and we would expect them to get it. If that were the circumstances, they should get it and they would get it, and I don’t think we would be doing this.

GWEN IFILL: Final – excuse me -

SEN. HARRY REID: Let’s not do the hypothetical – let’s do what is the reality. The reality is it’s split 50/50.

GWEN IFILL: Final question to Senator Murray: Do you have any fears or expectations of party switches which could tip the entire balance for you?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: I certainly think there is always possibilities but I doubt if that will happen. I think again we have 50 Republicans, 50 Democrats; we have the reality of that; we have the reality that this is the first time ever it’s been 50 Republicans; 50 Democrats. And we’re going to have to work together to get anything done, and I hope that our two leaders along with the support of their caucuses can make that happen for the American public.

GWEN IFILL: In the course of this conversation did you get a sense of that’s going to happen?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, you only have four members here. And I certainly think are a lot of members who want to show the American public that just because we’re divided doesn’t mean we can’t work together, and I hope we can work things out before January.

GWEN IFILL: Senators, I wish you all good luck on that. Thank you very much.