The Washington Post

Even a 50-50 Senate probably won’t require Joe Biden to break too many ties

Biden, in top form. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Vice President Joe Biden's obvious desire to be the president of the United States will probably not come true. But he might have the opportunity to spend the next two years fulfilling his constitutional role as the president of the Senate, given the reasonable odds that the 2014 elections could result in a 50-50 party split.

But probably not.

Getting this out of the way up front: A "50-50 split" isn't entirely accurate. There are currently 53 Democrats and two independents who caucus (and usually vote) with the party. Neither of the independents is up for reelection this year, so a 50-50 party split would really be a 48-50-2 split.

Which appears to be pretty likely. The Post's election prediction tool doesn't offer odds on various post-election compositions, but the New York Times' does. It has an even split at 18 percent odds -- the second-most likely outcome, in its estimation. (The Post team thinks that a 52-48 Republican majority is the most likely outcome.)

If that 50-50 split happens, it makes the odds of a tie vote more likely. (Obviously.) And if there is a tie vote in the Senate, as students of the Constitution/sixth grade social studies know, the vice president gets to weigh in. For Biden, that would theoretically mean him taking a stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue or ditching the 2016 campaign trail at a moment's notice to cast a crucial vote.

But such votes have fallen out of fashion. When our Republic first got off the ground, tie-breaking votes were much more common. In the late 1800s, they became less frequent; now they occur somewhere south of once a year.

That is, until Biden became vice president. He hasn't cast a single tie-breaking vote, in part because of the increased role that cloture has played in the Senate. When the bar for a bill's passage it that it cobbles together 60 votes in order to cut off a filibuster, doing better than 50 votes in final passage becomes pretty trivial.

Looking at the 93rd, 103rd and 113th Congresses, you can see how the voting patterns have shifted. In the 93rd, in 1973-1974, the voting was pretty evenly distributed across all possible outcomes. In the 103rd (1993-1994), less so. And now, in this Congress, passing votes are much more heavily in the mid-50s.

Part of that, too, is that the Senate has been passing less legislation during the last few Congresses. There are more 54-vote margins because fewer bills meet the 60-vote cloture requirement. Which also means fewer ties for Biden. If a small fraction of a lot of bills ends up being 50-50, you'll get a small number of ties to break. If a small fraction of a small number of bills is going to end up as a tie, it might never happen.

In other words, if the Senate of the 114th Congress has 50 Republicans and 48-plus-two Democrats, it increases the chances that Biden's services will again be needed in the chamber he loved and served in for 36 years. But it's still unlikely that he'll actually have to cast many votes.

At least it won't keep him off the campaign trail.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.



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Paul Kane · August 18, 2014

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