Who Controls the Senate if Strom Thurmond Dies?

Now that the country is in a frenzy of political scenarios, try this one: Democrat Maria Cantwell unseats Republican Slade Gorton of Washington, and the Senate is split 50-50. If George W. Bush wins the presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney would cast the tie-breaking vote to decide that the Republicans control the Senate. (This requires another scenario: that the new Senate, which comes in Jan. 3, puts off this decision until the presidential inaugural Jan. 20.) But during the session, either ancient Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., or ailing Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., or both, die, and the Democratic governors of each state appoint Democrats. Who runs the Senate then?

Precedent is on the side of the Republicans. After the 1952 elections, the Senate consisted of 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one independent. The independent, Wayne Morse, agreed to vote with the Republicans, giving them the clear majority. But by midsession, several senators, including Republican Majority Leader Robert Taft, had died and were replaced with Democrats. The Senate–oh, bastion of civility!--continued to be controlled by Republicans for the rest of session, even though they had become the minority party.

This history brings a twist to Kausefiles’ scenario that if Gore wins the presidency, Vice President-elect Joe Lieberman should forgo that office and remain in the Senate in order to keep Democratic control. Knowing the Senate’s love of precedent, Lieberman could join the next Congress on Jan. 3, with still-sitting Vice President Al Gore casting the deciding vote to have the Senate run by Democrats. Then Gore and Lieberman are inaugurated Jan. 20, and Lieberman resigns from the Senate. Connecticut’s Republican governor appoints a Republican to replace him, but the Senate, bound by tradition remains controlled by the Democrats. Or … OK, hurry up and end this election, please.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Betty Koed and Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office and readers Jerry Skurnick and Mac Thomason for suggesting the question.