Political News

Harris flexes power as Senate tiebreaker

Posted February 6, 2021 9:58 a.m. EST

— Early Friday morning, Vice President Kamala Harris did something Joe Biden never did in his eight years as vice president -- cast a tie-breaking vote.

Her first ever -- coming before sunrise in Washington at 5:13 a.m. ET Friday -- pushed through an amendment during the Senate's vote-a-rama. Twenty-one minutes later, she broke a tie a second time, flexing her new power as the president of the Senate on a budget resolution unlocking the ability for Democrats to pass a Covid-19 relief package without Republican support.

"I was there voting at 5:00 this morning," Harris said during a roundtable with local Black Chambers of Commerce later on Friday. "It was enjoyable to be there."

Still, Harris has expressed some reluctance about her tie-breaking role as the White House hopes bipartisanship will thrive in Congress.

"Since our nation's founding, only 268 tie-breaking votes have been cast by a Vice President. I intend to work tirelessly as your Vice President, including, if necessary, fulfilling this Constitutional duty," she wrote before taking office. "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."

Competing demands?

But there's also the real possibility that the demand for Harris as a tie-breaker could tether her to the Senate, placing a strain on her schedule and duties as vice president if she's often needed on Capitol Hill.

"You can't be in the room at the White House if you have to be down at Capitol Hill to break a tie vote. You can't be traveling around the world to meet with leaders on the international stage, or you can't be traveling domestically," Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential historian, said. "It can work havoc with the vice president's calendar."

"That's a problem vice presidents don't have when the Senate is not evenly divided, or when their party can count on cross-party votes to get the margins that they need," he added.

Presiding over the Senate is a duty assigned to the vice president in the Constitution, and with it, comes the power of breaking any ties in the chamber. With today's Senate evenly split at 50-50, the chances of Harris making that 1.2 mile journey from the White House to the Capitol to serve as the tie-breaker are high.

Within the past week, Harris made four trips to the Capitol -- once to pay respects to fallen Capitol Hill Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed in the January 6 riot and laid in honor in the building's rotunda, and three times to be on standby to be the deciding vote in the Senate.

In the past, Harris' predecessor, former Vice President Mike Pence, delayed a trip to the Middle East in 2017 to stay nearby as the Senate voted on a tax package. His vote ultimately wasn't needed, but Pence did go on to cast 13 tie-breaking votes -- a record for a modern-day vice president.

Dick Cheney, the last vice president to serve during an evenly split Senate, had eight-tie breaking votes, while former Vice President Al Gore had four.

"Every time I vote, we win," Gore joked in 1994. "It's a very encouraging phenomenon."

Despite his deep affinity for the traditions of the Senate, Biden never cast one tie-breaking vote while serving as vice president, but he remained a frequent presence on Capitol Hill throughout his eight years in the Obama White House, often in the role of negotiator.

Chocolates and a warm fire: Harris mingles with Senate colleagues

Harris arrived in the Senate Thursday night bearing White House chocolates for her Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, a White House aide said. The vice president later huddled around a warm fire in her Senate office with some senators, including Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

She also ceremonially swore-in Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California, her replacement, and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, who will serve as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

While Biden has leaned on his decades of relationships and experience on Capitol Hill in negotiations, Harris is newer to the Washington scene, having served four years in the Senate before moving on to the White House. But her visits to Capitol Hill could provide her opportunities to further build relationships with the senators who could be key to advancing the White House's agenda.

Senate Democrats are welcoming her expected presence on Capitol Hill as it cements their majority.

"There are times where she may have to be nearby or even be there because we don't know what a vote is going to be, sometimes," Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said. "It's going to be more important than ever given the close close Senate, where we are literally a tie."

After a brief trip home, the vice president returned to the Senate around 3:30 a.m. ET Friday ahead of the final stretch of the vote-a-rama. She watched the floor debate from her Senate office and wrote notes to Senate colleagues. This included a congratulatory message to Ann Berry, the first Black person to serve as secretary of the Senate.

Shortly after 5 am, Harris walked to the chamber to preside over the Senate for three votes, casting tiebreakers for two, with the final one coming at 5:34 a.m.

Four hours later, she was back at the White House at the President's side in the Oval Office.

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