The Volokh Conspiracy

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Will Lisa Murkowski Be the Jim Jeffords of 2021?

The last time the Senate split 50-50, the even balance did not last long.


The Senate is split 50-50, leaving the tie-breaking vote in the hands of the Vice President. As I discussed here, this arrangement is not a recipe for stable control of the chamber. Accordingly, the last time this happened (in 2001), there was a power-sharing arrangement that divided authority and resources more evenly than occurs when one party has a true Senate majority.

The 2001 power-sharing arrangement did not last very long, however. In June 2001, Vermont Senator James Jeffords left the Republican party and (more significantly) began to caucus with Senate Democrats, converting the 50-50 chamber to one with clear party control. This switch was momentous. Among other things, it scuttled the Bush Administration's hope to move quickly on judicial nominees and shifted the legislative agenda. In return for his conversion, Senate Democrats made Jeffords Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Will we see a replay of 2001? Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has run independent of her party on the ballot before, has called upon the President to resign and questioned her future with the Republican Party. Were she to become an independent, she would still need to decide where to caucus, for purposes committee assignments and the like. So were she to split with Republicans, and remain in the Senate, she would likely caucus with Democrats. The question, then, would be what might Senate Democrats offer to make it worth her while.

Senator Murkowski is more liberal than her Republican colleagues on some issues, but is definitely more conservative than Democrats on others. One challenge may be that those issues that are most important to her constituents in Alaska, such as federal energy policy, may also be those issues where the gulf between Senator Murkowski's preferences and those of Senate Democrats are the greatest. On the other hand, for purposes of climate policy, Senate Democrats may see significant value in a 51st Senator on their side (particularly given the 50th is West Virginia's Joe Manchin).