On Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Pence could do something that historians can't recall ever happening: casting a tiebreaking vote for a Cabinet nominee.
The Senate is expected to break 50 to 50 on the pick of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, which means Pence — who is also technically president of the Senate — would get to cast the vote that tips her nomination over the edge.
Nearly a century ago, one vice president almost beat Pence to the history books. Except, he took a nap and never got the chance.
It's 1925. A popular President Calvin Coolidge had just been overwhelmingly elected as a small-government conservative following the death of Warren Harding a few years earlier. He picks for his No. 2 a decorated World War I hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Charles Dawes. Coolidge also nominates lawyer and diplomat Charles B. Warren to be his attorney general.
The Senate is controlled by Coolidge's party — Republican — but Warren's nomination was highly controversial on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and some liberal Republicans had attacked Warren as having ties to big sugar, a no-no in the wake of ethics scandals from Harding, including the “Teapot Dome” bribery scandal that sent a Cabinet member to prison.
“There is a DeVosian element in Warren's nomination,” said Brooklyn College history professor Robert David Johnson, who first pointed out this nap story to The Fix. “This was an appointment that inflamed the issue that the ideological opposition cared a lot about.”
So the vote on Warren is expected to be close, and Dawes is up on Capitol Hill presiding over debate about the nominee, which is how vice presidents spent most of their days back then.
But as anyone who has watched C-SPAN for hours knows, Congress has a knack for turning anything remotely politically exciting into a snooze fest. Dawes soon tired of the debate — and, really, he was tiring of the whole vice presidency gig, Johnson said. He heard that the chair of the Judiciary Committee — an “unbelievably dull senator,” Johnson said — was expected to speak for four hours, so Dawes went back to his hotel by the White House to take a nap. Wake me up when they're actually going to vote, he told his aides.
Of course, Dull decided to end his speech prematurely, and Senate leaders called a vote on Warren. Some votes break unexpectedly, and suddenly it's a 40-to-40 tie. Dawes is needed to cast the tiebreaking vote. But where is he?!
A phone rings in Dawes's hotel room and wakes him up. “He rushes to the Senate chamber while the vote is still technically open,” Johnson said.
On his way to the Senate, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina — hoping to use this moment to humiliate Dawes and the Coolidge administration — announces he's going to flip his vote from yes to no. And by the time Dawes arrives on Capitol Hill, Warren's nomination is 39 to 41, and he's rejected. Dawes arrives, flustered and too late to save a rare defeat of a president's nominee by a Senate controlled by his party.
As the official Senate historian website noted, it was an epic gaffe:
“President Coolidge angrily held Dawes responsible for his most embarrassing legislative defeat, and the rest of Washington could not resist teasing the vice president over the incident. The Gridiron Club presented him with a four-foot high alarm clock. And Senator Norris read a parody of “Sheridan's Ride” on the Senate floor:
Hurrah, Hurrah for Dawes!
Hurrah! hurrah for this high-minded man!
And when his statue is placed on high,
Under the dome of the Capitol sky,
The great senatorial temple of fame —
There with the glorious General's name
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright,
Oh, Hell an' Maria, he has lost us the fight.”
All of this is what makes Tuesday's likely tie vote on DeVos so extraordinary. Nominees rarely have near-unanimous opposition from the other party. For decades, the Senate's practice has been to give new presidents deference for their picks. But nothing about Donald Trump's presidency is normal, and Senate Democrats, who took away their power to filibuster these nominees, are making Trump's picks go through extraordinarily high hurdles to get approved.
Each nominee that gets confirmed is making history in his or her own right. As The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe reports, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the first secretary of state nominee in U.S. history to ever have to clear various procedural hurdles before a final vote. Democratic senators have boycotted committee votes on Trump's nominees for Treasury, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Health and Human Services, forcing Republicans to suspend the rules and advance the nominees without a quorum. DeVos is caught up in an extraordinarily powerful popular uprising that has successfully persuaded two GOP senators to vote against her.
This is all bad news for Trump, who has the smallest confirmed Cabinet in decades, but there's a silver lining for Pence, who could go down in history for this tiebreaking vote, thanks to one of his sleepy predecessors.