Who Will Lead the Senate?

November 4 is right around the corner and speculation about which party will control the Senate and by how many seats has reached a frenzied pitch. Elections forecasters place the odds of a Republican takeover at about 70 percent. The odds shift, of course, whenever new polls, fundraising numbers, and campaign ads are released. The 55 seat majority the Democrats currently enjoy in the Senate will certainly shrink, but by how much? How many seats can Republicans hope to pick up? And what about the possibility of a split Senate, where each party controls 50 seats and Vice President Joe Biden becomes the tie-breaking vote? Or—even more intriguing—what about the possibility of 49-49 split? If Kansas Independent Greg Orman is elected, might he team up with Maine’s Independent Sen. Angus King to decide which party wins majority control? As forecasters, journalists, and armchair observers play out each of these scenarios, the question of who will serve as the Senate’s next Majority Leader becomes central.

During his October 8 debate with Greg Orman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) repeatedly claimed that a vote for Orman would be a vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Orman dismissed this claim and said he would not support Reid or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for Majority Leader. Predictably, some of the post-debate analysis focused on what will happen when the “Senate meets to choose its next Majority Leader” and what role Orman (if elected) might play in that process.

In the midst of all this speculation, some procedural clarification may be useful. The positions of Senate Majority Leader and Minority Leader are not included in the Constitution. The only Senate leadership posts the Constitution mentions are the Vice President, who serves as President of the Senate, and the President Pro Tempore, the most senior Senator from the Majority Party (currently Patrick Leahy of Vermont). The chamber’s party leaders evolved out of necessity and were formally designated in the 1920s. They are elected by the members of their respective conferences and not by the Senate as a whole. The party that controls a majority of seats designates their leader the Majority Leader and the other party’s leader the Minority Leader. The Majority Leader sets the agenda, schedules the daily legislative program, and has the right of first recognition on the Senate floor, which allows him to offer motions or amendments before any of his colleagues. Both the Majority and Minority Leader serve as spokespersons for their parties. They have few specific powers and instead rely on their personalities and skills to lead.

Shortly after the November 4 election, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans will meet separately to select (by secret ballot) their leaders. At this point, Independent Senators would have to choose which party to caucus with. Independent Senators Angus King (ME) and Bernie Sanders (VT) currently caucus with the Democrats. Greg Orman has said that, if elected, he will caucus with whichever party is in the majority. While Sanders will certainly continue to caucus with the Democrats, King is less predictable. Like Orman, he may decide that he can be more effective in the majority and change teams after the election. There is also a strong possibility that we may not know which party holds the majority until well after Election Day. Senate candidates in Louisiana and Georgia must attract a majority (more than 50 percent of all votes cast) to win. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two candidates go to a runoff election. Louisiana’s run-off election is scheduled for December 6 and Georgia’s is scheduled for January 6. So in addition to the uncertainty a few Independents may add to the Senate leadership races, there’s also the likelihood that two races may delay the process of determining which party will lead.

Choosing to caucus with a party does not mean having to support that party’s current leader. Orman could conceivably caucus with the Republicans and not support Mitch McConnell for party leader. Or, he could caucus with the Democrats and not vote for Harry Reid. Same goes for Angus King. Given that Reid and McConnell are both fairly unpopular, we may see other Senators compete for the reins. Within both caucuses, the leadership candidate who wins a majority wins the post. At this point, most Senators are not willing to speculate as to whether Reid and/or McConnell will have to compete to hold onto their leadership positions. Reid’s most likely challengers—Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL)—have recently claimed that they intend to support Reid for party leader. And it is unclear who on the Republican side could launch a serious challenge to McConnell. Maintaining a unified front before the November elections is important. After the elections, though, all bets are off!

Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

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