Senate Switch FAQ

Vermont Sen. James Jeffords has switched from the Republican Party to independent. Is that a party?

No, it’s the absence of party affiliation. Though it is usually referred to without capitalization, the Senate Historical Office puts a capital “I” after the name of independents for stylistic consistency with Democratic and Republican Party identification. There is a small third-party movement called the Independence Party, and during the presidential election it became a factor in the Florida vote because many people who thought they were registering as “independents” mistakenly registered as “Independence.”

How many independents have served in the Senate?

Six. David Davis of Illinois, 1877-83; George W. Norris of Nebraska, 1937-43; Wayne L. Morse of Oregon, 1953-55; Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia, 1971-83; Bob Smith of New Hampshire, for a few months in 1999; and Jeffords. All these people, except Davis,  served time in the Senate as members of major parties as well. For example, the nomadic Morse was a Republican senator from 1945-53 and a Democratic one from 1955-69.

How many senators have switched party affiliation?

According to Explainer’s beloved Senate Historical Office, 19 senators have switched since 1890. Prior to that, party affiliation was a more fluid concept and senators frequently changed affiliation or created new parties. Since the Jeffords business is causing so much fun, let’s bring back some 19th-century parties such as Nullifier, Law and Order, Free Soil, Unconditional Unionist, Readjuster, Silver, and Liberal Republican (take that Trent Lott!).

Now that Jeffords has said he will affiliate with the Democrats, giving them the majority, what are the precise mechanisms by which majority status will switch?

It has never happened before in the history of the Senate that party control switched during a congressional session, so the details are being worked out now. Usually, when a new Congress is sworn in every two years, all this organizational business–such as selection of majority leader, committee chairmanships, and memberships–gets voted on and decided at the beginning of the session. How the Senate proceeds in this case will be precedent-setting and -shattering. The 83rd Congress, 1953-55, began divided with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one independent, allowing Republicans to have the majority. But the stress of such a situation must be great because during the subsequent two years, senators dropped like flies. Nine of them died, and numerical advantage actually shifted to the Democrats. But because no Senate has switched party control during a session, the Republicans continued to run things even though they became the minority party (yes, Trent, those were the days). But anticipating a possible high mortality rate, this year on Jan. 5, the Senate passed a resolution stating that if the numerical majority shifts, the winning party gets leadership of the Senate and also gets a numerical majority on committees, which are now split down the middle.

Is Majority Leader-To-Be Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., going to throw Trent Lott out of his majority leader office?

No. As party leaders, each gets a personal Senate office and a party-leader office. They will stay in the offices they now occupy, but the “Majority Leader” sign will move. (“Sen. Lott, please, sir, you have to let go of the sign, sir, please.”)

Press reports say Jeffords will caucus with the Democrats. What does that mean?

It means he will affiliate himself with the Democratic Conference, the organizing committee for the party. The conference is where decisions on committee chairmanships and memberships get made. While this largely goes according to seniority–and by precedent, party switchers get to keep their seniority–the conference can also decide to overlook strict seniority and, say, reward a party-switcher with a coveted committee chairmanship. Both parties have dropped the formal use of the word “caucus,” which came to carry with it a connotation of those secret, smoky rooms. The word “caucus” is of unknown origin, but there is some evidence it is derived from an Algonquian word for “advise.”

How does Jeffords actually go about formally switching parties?

This “Explainer”  answers that question.

Next questions?

Explainer thanks Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.