WASHINGTON – Around 5 a.m. Friday in the nation’s capital, bleary-eyed senators who had spent hours debating a COVID relief bill looked up to see Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over the chamber.
Within minutes, she would cast two important, tie-breaking voteson a budget resolution, clearing the way for what Democrats hope is the quick passage of a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that President Joe Biden sees as necessary to ramp up vaccine distribution and get America back on its economic feet.
Harris’ vote could presage a busy legislative role for her: The likely tie-breaking vote in an evenly split Senate deeply divided over policy. It’s an action seldom taken throughout history, but may turn out to be a crucial tool the Biden administration uses to move appointments and priorities through Congress.
As vice president, Harris holds the title of Senate president, which, while largely ceremonial, means she can vote to break ties on bills, court nominees and Cabinet appointments.
Even before Friday’s votes, her very presence had made an impact. When Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff unseated two Republicans in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff election, the Senate became evenly split between both parties. Harris’ position automatically gave Democrats control of the chamber.
She’s poised to reprise her role as tie-breaker in the coming weeks when the COVID relief proposal, known as the American Rescue Plan, comes up for a final vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Tie-breaking opportunities could be limited
Though Harris has the deciding vote in the split Senate, she may not get a final say on much.
That’s because Harris only has the authority to vote when the Senate is deadlocked at 50-50. Controversial measures such as curbing oil and gas development, efforts to reverse decades of systemic racial discrimination or expand health care are likely to be blocked by Senate filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome.
Harris won’t be able to participate in filibuster votes though she may be part of negotiations to find common ground.
The COVID relief plan is different because it’s being passed through a special budget maneuver known as “reconciliation.”
That allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority, bypassing Senate filibuster rules. The mechanism can’t be used to push through bills that don’t have a direct fiscal impact – so the opportunities for the vice president to break ties on other issues could be limited.
Harris herself has publicly said she hopes she won’t be breaking too many ties.
“I intend to work tirelessly as your vice president, including, if necessary, fulfilling this constitutional duty,” she wrote in a recent column for her hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. “At the same time, it is my hope that rather than come to the point of a tie, the Senate will instead find common ground and do the work of the American people.”
Vice presidents’ public prominence is largely tied to their role as the next in line should a president die, resign or be removed from office. Less apparent and more uneven is the influence they can wield in advising presidents on key policies and appointments.
But in a hyper-partisan era where so many major issues fall among party lines, Harris is poised to emerge as a consequential veep on legislative issues by personally delivering on Biden administration priorities in the Senate.
But while Harris’ early-morning votes have cleared the way for a massive relief package, they also fed into a growing GOP complaint that Biden’s pledge to reach across the aisle was an empty promise.
South Dakota GOP Sen. John Thune, the second most powerful Republican in the Senate, said there was no need to jam the budget resolution through given that Congress has negotiated and passed five prior COVID relief packages with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“Now is the time for President Biden to show whether he really intends to live up to his inaugural pledge and unify our nation,” Thune said in a statement hours after the Senate vote. “That means not just talk, but action. It means working with lawmakers of both parties to develop legislation – not pushing exclusively Democrat measures.”
Biden has countered that the crisis demands quick action, telling House Democrats during a private call Wednesday that paring his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan down to the $618 billion proposed by 10 Senate Republicans was “not even in the cards.”
Vice presidents vary on how often they break ties
Despite the split Senate, history suggests Harris might not get many opportunities to wield her tie-breaking vote over the next four years.
There have been 268 occasions where a vice president has broken a tie, a relatively modest amount considering the first Senate session took place in 1789. That’s a little more than one tie-breaking vote per year on average, although there have been about 37 years when the nation had no vice president.
John C. Calhoun, who served under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, broke the most ties (31), while John Adams, under George Washington, came close with 29. But 12 never cast one, including Biden who spent eight years as Barack Obama’s second in command.
Just weeks into her term, Harris already has more broken ties (two) than Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Walter Mondale, who each had one.
The most recent vice president, Mike Pence, broke 13 ties – the most by a Senate president in nearly 150 years – even though Republicans had at least a four-seat advantage during his four years in office.
As Pence’s example suggests, ties aren’t only confined to 50-50 Senates. Only two of the eight tiebreakers Vice President Dick Cheney cast took place when the chamber was evenly split in 2001.
Joel K. Goldstein, a St. Louis University Law School professor and the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden,” expects that Harris might outdo Pence given the even split in the Senate, the increasing polarization on Capitol Hill and the ability to block confirmation of judicial nominees and top administration appointees.
“There are very few vice presidents who cast more tie-breaking votes per year than Pence did,” he said. “So if you figure that the Senate is more evenly divided at least for the next two years you think the odds of her casting some tie breakers would be greater.”
Not all tie breakers are the same. With a country reeling from a pandemic and social unrest, Harris is already making an immediate impact with Friday’s votes on COVID relief.
Harris could cast deciding vote on COVID relief
Harris’ two tie-breaking votes were each cast Friday morning, once in favor of an amendment and again on passage of the overall budget resolution that cleared the way for the COVID stimulus plan.
Her next opportunity to break a tie could be even bigger: Final passage of the $1.9 trillion package, perhaps within weeks.
So far, no Senate Republican has expressed support for the president’s plan, foreshadowing another split vote and another appearance by Harris, who with one vote could give the Biden administration its first major legislative victory.
If that happens, Goldstein said it would mark a “very consequential” vote by a vice president in a chamber that has seen a number of important tie-breaking moments.
Calhoun’s vote in 1832 denied future president Martin Van Buren an ambassadorship to Great Britain. Al Gore’s vote in 1993 secured approval of President Bill Clinton’s economic package budget that reduced the deficit and raised taxes on the rich. Pence’s vote in 2017 ensured passage of a measure giving tax breaks to families who home-school or send their children to private or religious schools.
The prospect of needing Harris to break ties means Democrats might have to schedule key votes based on the vice president’s availability. That might limit her ability to travel but her role as the president of the Senate 51st vote carries key political benefits as well, Goldstein said.
“If she gets to break a vote on something that’s really important to Democratic constituents,” he said. “She can put that on her political resume, even though she’s simply acting as an administration loyalist.”