Share and Share Alike
Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate reached a power sharing agreement Jan. 5. Each party will hold an equal number seats on committees, and both parties will be able to lead voting procedures on the Senate floor.
For the first time ever, Americans have elected exactly 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans to the U.S. Senate. That means neither party has a majority in the upper house of Congress. Usually, the party with the most members set the agendas and run the meetings. But with an even split, who's in charge?
Many Republicans say they are, because any tie votes will be broken by the Vice President, who also acts as President of the Senate. After Jan. 20, that will be Republican Dick Cheney.
But many people, including most Democratic Senators, say a one-vote margin is pretty small and the whole Senate could easily be tied up with gridlock. Proposals for important issues like campaign finance reform, patients' rights, and tax cuts could end up being decided by one vote, and the potential for bitter resentment is high.
So some leaders have proposed a power-sharing arrangement, a compromise of sorts in which Republicans and Democrats would create a dual leadership. But that seems to be easier said than done.
One Chairman or Two?
Like the House of Representatives, the Senate is organized into committees, each dealing with a different issue -- from the powerful Finance or Armed Services Committees to the lesser known Indian Affairs Committee. The committees, like most structures in Congress, are set up to highlight the differences between the "majority" party (which has control) and the "minority" party.
In the 106 Congress, there were 12 more Republicans than Democrats, and Republicans got to name all the committee chairmen. That means the GOP had the most say in setting the agenda for each meeting, and deciding who gets to talk about what and when.
Current Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democratic Senator from South Dakota, told the NewsHour he wants all committees to be split 50-50. Traditionally only the Senate Ethics committee has an even number of committee members.
But Senate Finance committee member Phil Gramm, a Republican Senator from Texas, dismissed the idea of power sharing and 50-50 committees. He told the NewsHour 50-50 committees are unworkable. He said the proposed power sharing by Democrats has never happened before in history. Gramm explained an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on a committee would leave the chairman with responsibility but without authority.
Gramm predicts Republicans will vote for a traditional one-party majority but not all Democrats will vote to impose unprecedented power sharing. He wants Republicans to chair committees, and if vote ties happen, the Senate president could be convinced to vote in favor of Republicans.
Will they or won't they?
It's not hard to understand why Republicans don't want to give up control. Republicans have controlled the Senate and House since 1995. The 107 House of Representatives will have 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and 2 Independents.
Once President-elect George W. Bush is sworn in, Republicans will control the White House, the House of Representatives and, with Cheneys crucial vote, the Senate. Many Republicans see the new administration as a chance to pass and enact many of the bills they have advocated for years, but could not get approved while President Clinton, a Democrat, was in the White House.
"Besides, this is the way it has always been done, Republicans say, and it would be unfair to change the rules now. A one-vote majority is still a majority. At the end of the day a committee has to have a majority and that should be Republican," said Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, on the NewsHour.
Even though some Republican leaders are not willing to give up control of committee chairmanships, many agree gridlock and resentment between the two parties would be bad for the country. It is now up to Daschle and Majority leader Lott to decide how to share power. Their decision will influence the future of the narrowest congressional session in U.S. history.
What do you think? How should the U.S. Senate be divided? Is the Republican majority too small to count? Do Democrats have the right to ask power sharing?
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