With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Could the Democrats Lose the Senate before the Next Election?

Democratic Senator Tim Johnson had emergency surgery in December and remains hospitalized.  For a time, he was listed in critical condition.  The governor of his state is a Republican and would appoint a replacement if the seat became vacant.

Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic senatorial primary lost summer and was reelected as an independent.  Most of the people who voted for him last November were Republicans.  He supports the White House on Iraq, and although he promised to caucus with the Democrats, he has been watched attentively by both parties for any signs of impending defection.

The Senate is now 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans.  In case of a tie, Vice President Cheney casts the deciding vote.  If the Democrats were to lose a Senate seat or two, would the Republicans be able to take over the Senate?  The answer is in the organizing resolution that the Senate adopted on January 12.

At the beginning of every Congress, each house passes a resolution organizing its committees, designating committee chairs and listing the majority and minority members of each committee.  This is boring and not reported in newspapers — except that twice a Senate organizing resolution has had dramatic consequences.

The first time was in the 83d Congress, when there were 48 states and thus 96 senators.  When the Senate organized in January 1953, the Republicans had 48 senators and the Democrats 47.  The extra was Wayne Morse of Oregon, previously a Republican.  Because he objected to a Republican drift to the right, he had resigned from the Republican party in October 1952, declared himself an independent, and in the presence of a roomful of reporters filled out an absentee ballot in which he voted for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate.

Organizing resolutions normally do not provide that if the majority party loses its majority, control of Senate committees will shift to the other party, and the resolution adopted in January 1953 was a typical one and lacked such a provision.  Usually, this doesn’t matter.  The party that starts with a majority nearly always keeps it during a Congress’s two-year life.  But that was not the case in the 83d Congress.

Nine senators died in 1953 and 1954.  One of them was Robert Taft, who was at the time the Republican majority leader. In those years, the majority leader’s fate seemed cursed.  In 1950, the Democratic majority leader was defeated for reelection by his own state’s voters, an extreme way of humiliating a person who has national power.  His successor suffered the same fate in 1952, losing to Barry Goldwater and creating a vacancy as Democratic floor leader that was filled by Lyndon Johnson.  After the 1952 elections, the Republicans took over the Senate, and Robert Taft became majority leader.  A few months later, he died.

Nobody knew it at the time, but the Senate then was briefly a breeding ground for presidential candidates.  In addition to Goldwater and Johnson, the Senate included John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.  Richard Nixon had just left the Senate to become Vice President.  George McGovern was elected to the Senate later, in 1962.  That accounts for every presidential candidate nominated by a major party in the four presidential elections from 1960 to 1972.  From 1896 to 1992, only three other presidential candidates nominated by major parties had served in the Senate (Harding, 1920; Truman,1948; Mondale,1984).

Each Senate death creates two opportunities for a seat to change hands, first when the governor of the deceased senator’s state appoints a temporary successor and again at the special election held to choose a senator to serve out the remainder of the deceased senator’s term.  Several of these elections were not held until November 1954, but the senators elected then were sworn in in time to vote when the Senate censured Joseph McCarthy on December 2, 1954.

The Republicans had a Senate plurality from January to July 1953.  Then the Democrats had a plurality until June 1954; the Republicans again until December 1954; and finally the  Democrats again until the 83d Congress ended in January 1955.  These periods were occasionally interrupted by a week or two, and in one case a month, when the parties were tied.

For nearly half of the 83d Congress, the Democrats had more Senate seats than the Republicans.  But for the entire two years, Republicans chaired the committees and ran the Senate.  Republican Senator William Knowland frequently referred to himself as a majority leader without a majority, and his Democratic counterpart, Lyndon Johnson, said, “If anyone has more problems than a majority leader with a minority, it is a minority leader with a majority.”

One of the chairs designated in the organizing resolution was McCarthy, who ran the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations and used both of them to terrorize whomever he wanted to.  He was investigated by his own subcommittee and during the hearings relinquished the chair to his fellow Republican, Karl Mundt.

On the day the hearings began in April 1954, Senate committees and subcommittees were chaired by Republicans even though Democrats outnumbered them 48 to 46.  On the day Robert Welch famously rebuked McCarthy over McCarthy’s smear of a young lawyer in Welch’s firm — “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness . . . .  Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator . . . . You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” — the parties were tied at 47 senators each.  That tie was broken two days later when Democrat Sam Ervin was sworn in to replace a senator who had died.  (Two decades later Ervin chaired the Senate committee that investigated Watergate.)

Why didn’t the Democrats try to organize the Senate when they had a plurality?  Even though the organizing resolution adopted in January 1953 did not provide for changing the parties’ statuses, the Democrats might have moved to adopt a new resolution to supersede the original one.

The reasons are not entirely clear.  One theory is that the Republicans would have filibustered any new organizing resolution introduced by the Democrats, but the picture of a minority party using an undemocratic device to hold onto power would probably have been a public relations disaster for the Republicans.

Another theory, suggested by Donald Ritchie, Associate Historian in the Senate’s Historical Office, is that the Democrats preferred to let the Republicans run the Senate while McCarthy was being investigated.  If the Democrats controlled the Senate and investigated McCarthy, they could be blamed all the more for being “soft on Communism,” a standard right-wing epithet of the period.  But this theory doesn’t entirely fit the chronology.  The Democrats first gained a plurality in the summer of 1953, and the dispute that led to the McCarthy hearings — his attempted intimidation of the Army — did not erupt in public until March 1954.  In the summer of 1953, McCarthy could have been deprived of his power as committee chair in a way that would have imposed very little political risk on the Democrats.  If they had taken over the Senate then, all Republican committee chairs would have been demoted to ranking members and lost the ability to control committee business, and it would not have appeared that they were attacking McCarthy.  Moreover, the McCarthy hearings were mostly concerned with how he had abused his power as a committee chair after the summer of 1953.

The most mundane theory might be the most likely.  With such a thin margin, the Democrats would not have been able to adopt a new organizing resolution unless every Democrat voted for it.  In such an unprecedented situation, Johnson might never have been confident he had all the votes he would have needed.

Perhaps the most interesting theory concerns the one member of the Senate who was not a member of either party.  At several points during the 83d Congress, the newly indepdendent Wayne Morse held the balance of power.  But he sabotaged his own leverage, and nobody seemed to be able to figure out how to handle him.  It has been claimed that if Republican control were in jeopardy, Morse would have returned to the Republicans to produce a tie, which Vice President Richard Nixon would have broken in favor of the Republicans.  But Morse was one of the most liberal members of the Senate, and Nixon’s nomination for Vice President in 1952 was one of the reasons Morse left the Republican party.  He became a Democrat in 1955, and in 1964 he was one of the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized the escalation of the Viet Nam War.

When the Senate met at the start of the 83d Congress, Morse refused to sit with either party in the Senate chamber and instead sat on a folding chair in the aisle between the Republican side and the Democratic side.  When he realized this made him look silly, he resumed his seat on the Republican side even though he was no longer a Republican.  Then he wanted to sit among the Democrats because, he said, two Republican senators kept whispering insults at him.

Before the 83d Congress, Morse sat on the Armed Services Committee and the Labor Committee.  These were highly desirable assignments in an era with a big military and a strong labor movement.  In January 1953, the Republicans assigned other senators to his places on both committees on the ground that he was no longer a Republican.  Morse asked the Democrats to boot a Democrat off each committee to make room for him, which the Democrats refused to do because, among other reasons, he was not a Democrat.

Before and after the 83d Congress, independent and third-party senators negotiated deals in which they supported one of the major parties for the purpose of organizing the Senate in exchange for drawing committee assignments, often desirable ones, from that party.  Morse did not do that.   He enjoyed playing the gadfly role, and much of his behavior in the period was simply grandstanding.

The second organizing resolution with dramatic consequences was adopted in January 2001.  The newly elected Senate was tied, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats.  Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote, which permitted the Republicans to organize the Senate.  The organizing resolution for this Senate was unique.  When the resolution was adopted, the most noteworthy feature seemed to be equal treatment on committees.  Although Republicans took the committee chairs, the committees were made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, and the parties got equal committee staff budgets.  The sleeper in the resolution was this language:  “if at any time during the 107th Congress either party attains a majority, . . . the provisions of this resolution shall have no further effect . . . except that the committee chairmanships shall be held by the party which has attained a majority.”  In the negotiations that preceded the resolution, each party had an incentive to agree on this language.  If the Republicans picked up a seat to gain a majority, they would have been able to restructure committees and committee budgets, to the Democrats’ disadvantage.  But that is not what happened.  Instead, Republican James Jeffords bolted his party in June 2001 and voted with the Democrats, producing a Democratic majority, and the Democrats took over the Senate.  Trent Lott, who was reduced to minority leader, denounced this as “a coup of one.”  He had forgotten that six months earlier the Supreme Court — by a margin of one vote — had put into the White House a Republican candidate who had lost the national popular vote.

The November 2006 elections produced a Senate with a thin Democratic majority, 51 to 49.  After Tim Johnson was hospitalized in December, there was much speculation in the media that the Republicans would insist that the new Senate’s organizing resolution contain language like the one adopted in 2001, and that they would filibuster a resolution that lacked it.  But the resolution adopted on January 12 contained no such provision, and the Republicans quietly acquiesced.  Why?

The Republicans aren’t saying.  But their position was weak for two reasons.

First, the 2001 resolution was unique because the situation was unique:  an exactly tied Senate from the first day.  Some other Senates have started with thin majorities, but the majority party would get an organizing resolution without an escape clause, which is the precedent on which the Democrats could rely.

Second, the Democrats now have an advantage that the Republicans did not have in 2000 — a popular mandate.  In the last two elections, many more Americans have voted for Democratic senatorial candidates than for Republicans.  In 2004, the Democrats got over four million more senate votes than the Republicans did.  In this year’s elections, the Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them got six and a half million more senate votes than the Republicans.  In all the elections that produced the 100 senators in the current Senate, 96 million votes were cast for Democratic senatorial candidates and 87 million for Republicans.  When the public has so clearly expressed its preference for a Democratic Senate, the Republicans would have looked awful to the public if they had used a filibuster to obstruct it from functioning.

So if the Republicans were to pick up a seat or two and gain a majority, they would get no help from the organizing resolution now in effect.  They would instead be in the position that Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats were in the 83d Congress.