OK, we know the Democratic nominees apparently won the two Georgia runoff elections for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday (Jan. 5), knocking off a pair of Republican incumbents. That should give Democrats control of the chamber and their long-sought “trifecta” — the Presidency, a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, and now an apparent 51-50 edge in the Senate by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.
But wait! What about Jim Jeffords? Does anyone remember him and what he did 20 years ago?
In June of 2001, three months before 9/11, Jeffords of Vermont did something no other U.S. Senator has ever done, before or since — he changed party affiliation (from Republican to Independent, but caucusing with the Democrats), thereby flipping control of the chamber from a GOP majority to Democratic control. It’s the only time in U.S. history that a single senator changing party affiliation resulting in reconstituted Senate control has ever happened.
The point of this article is, the scenario today means the stage is set for it to happen again, except the other way around.
In January of 2001, the Senate had found itself in a 50-50 tie, just like today. At that time, the new Vice President was Republican Dick Cheney, who as the presiding officer had the tie-breaking vote, enabling the Republicans to organize the chamber. That was all well and good for five months, but then Jeffords, a lifelong Republican, bolted the GOP caucus. in June. When he walked over to the Democratic side, that meant there was a new Democratic majority, 51-49, and Cheney’s tie-breaking vote was no longer required. The Democrats took over and continued to control the chamber for another 18 months, until Republican Jim Talent won a special contest in Missouri and the GOP solidified its advantage in the November, 2002, general election, regaining its majority in the chamber.
Flash forward to 2021 — it could happen again. Let’s say Joe Manchin, a lonely Democratic U.S. Senator swimming in a red sea of Republicanism in West Virginia, should decide he’s so out of step with his party colleagues that he might just as well make it official and join the GOP. The governor of West Virginia has already done that. Manchin has said he would never vote to get rid of the filibuster, which scuttles the Democrats’ plans to do exactly that if they could get 51 votes to pull it off. You can be sure Manchin would be amply rewarded by grateful Republicans with a committee chairmanship, just as Jeffords was rewarded by Democrats back in 2001.
Let’s see what happens.