Senate divided by party gives Kamala Harris powerful tiebreaker role
Kamala Harris’s term as vice president will be defined from the start by the Senate’s partisan split, as the former lawmaker is pushed into a powerful role in a chamber that must decide whether to convict the outgoing president of inciting an insurrection.
After wins by Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s runoff elections, the upper chamber is divided 50-50 between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, meaning Harris can use her tie-breaking vote as president of the Senate to push through nominees and pass bills on which senators are split along party lines.
And it’s a cudgel she will likely have to use, even though President-elect Joe Biden’s team has said it hopes to secure Republican support for legislation, especially if Democrats don’t do away with the 60-vote rule on most legislation.
No sooner than Biden and Harris are sworn in, they’ll be working to pass their $1.9 trillion Covid-relief plan, which has elements that would likely appeal to enough moderate Republicans to gain some favor in the Senate but other parts that may spur partisan warfare.
Under current rules, Democrats can pass some items with just 51 votes through a process known as budget reconciliation. The rest will require the spirit of cooperation Biden had promised he can resurrect.
Yet there’s no reason to believe Republicans will be in the mood to play along.
Their narrow defeats in Georgia, setting up the 50-50 split, mean Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will lose his power to dictate the agenda in Washington or block nominees. But as minority leader, he’ll still hold sway over his own caucus.
And the recent mob that stormed the Capitol, while uniting most members against the violence, also highlighted the deep political divides Biden’s administration will face.
The Senate may soon be turning to putting Trump on trial after the House impeached him last week for a historic second time.
The Supreme Court chief justice normally presides when a sitting president is tried, but Trump will be out of power by then. McConnell, in a memo to GOP senators, said it was unclear whether Chief Justice John Roberts would preside, and Roberts has declined to comment.
If he doesn’t, Harris likely would be the presiding officer, which would give Democrats a one-vote edge to settle disputes on issues such as evidence.
Biden has suggested that Harris could be a dealmaker instead of a tie-breaker, potentially taking on some of the good will he earned with the few senators remaining from his 36 years in the Senate.
“I’ve never once misled any of my Republican colleagues. Not one single time. And they know they can trust Kamala as well. And we can figure out where we can cooperate. Where we can’t, we have our arguments,” Biden said on a December call with supporters.
But Harris’s ability to win over Senate Republicans may be limited. Her contact list of friendly Republicans is smaller than Biden’s. She’s not known for close relationships with McConnell or his leadership team. Nor has she gained a reputation as a participant in the various “gangs” of party moderates and compromisers.
In her four years in the Senate, Harris’s work put her consistently at odds with McConnell’s efforts with President Donald Trump to reshape the federal judiciary and pass the massive 2017 tax-cut bill with only GOP votes.
On the Senate Judiciary Committee, she used her high-profile seat to oppose Trump’s judicial nominees and was a particularly incisive questioner of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.
Still, the progressive senator has collaborated with some Republicans. She worked with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump loyalist, to reauthorize a preservation program for historically black colleges and universities. She also worked with Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma on legislation that sought to protect U.S. elections from foreign meddling by strengthening the cybersecurity of voting systems.
The narrow majority means party leaders will also have to accommodate Democrats from Republican-leaning or battleground states, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Montana’s Jon Tester. Recently elected Democrat Mark Kelly won in Arizona as a moderate, and he’ll be back on the ballot in 2022 as a target for Republicans.
Democrats could craft a package that includes more stimulus checks, a progressive tax rewrite, a climate plan and an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Trump used budget reconciliation to pass his tax cuts and attempted to use it to end the ACA, known as Obamacare, which was also passed in 2010 using budget reconciliation.
The process does have limits, and with only 50 votes plus Harris, Democrats have no wiggle room. Changes to Social Security, for example, aren’t allowed under reconciliation, nor are items with even an incidental impact on spending or taxes.
Other Democratic priorities such as gun control or increasing funding for agencies are also not allowed under reconciliation. Instead, those would be subject to a filibuster, a tactic the minority party can use to block action unless there are 60 votes in the Senate to proceed. That means incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have to find 10 Republicans to support the Democrats’ efforts.
“Where we can find common purpose and common ground, let’s do that. Let that be our priority,” Harris told ABC News last month. “As opposed to finding out where we disagree, let’s actually focus on where we might agree, and then get some work done.”