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Vice President Kamala Harris is on the verge of casting more tie-breaking votes in the Senate than any of her predecessors, underscoring the chamber’s increasing partisan rancor in an era of narrowly divided government and presenting her a unique set of challenges in traveling outside of Washington D.C.
Harris has so far broken 29 tie votes since becoming vice president in January 2021, putting her on track in just over two years to surpass the record of 31 set by John C. Calhoun over almost eight years as vice president in the 19th century.
“I always like it when she votes because when the vice president votes, we win,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The increased number of votes for Harris to break provides the latest evidence of the country’s political fissures, showcased in party-line votes by a Senate narrowly divided in membership between the two parties.
The Senate has historically required 60 votes to advance bills and nominees to their final stage, and it often conducts business quickly by a simple voice vote.
But both parties over time have embraced rules that allow the Senate to advance nominees and some economic packages with only simple majorities, raising the number of chances for the 100-member body to split 50-50.
Harris cast her first votes in her third week as vice president. In February 2021, she voted twice during a “vote-a-rama” that advanced a budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 5) and allowed the Senate to pass parts of the $1.9 trillion pandemic response package (Public Law 117-2) with a simple majority. In March 2021, she voted again to advance the measure. In August 2022, Harris cast three votes to advance the president’s signature climate, tax, and health package (Public Law 117-169).
All of her other votes to date have advanced President Joe Biden’s nominees to the administration and federal courts.
Vice presidents often find their own domestic portfolio shifted to the backburner when they have to preside over a deadlocked vote. As the 2024 presidential race heads up, Harris may find she’ll need to stay off the campaign trial in order to preside over tight Senate votes.
Harris has faced that problem more than any past No. 2 and her inability to move beyond the Beltway to connect with voters has likely contributed to her lackluster popularity.
Joel K. Goldstein, an emeritus professor of law at Saint Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency, said Harris suffers more for being kept from leaving in D.C. than she does from having to cast votes in line with the White House she serves in.
“There are more occasions when VP Harris needs to be in or near DC than for virtually all of her recent predecessors,” Goldstein said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), an ally of the vice president, said Harris’ Senate voting duties could at times be frustrating to her supporters.
“I actually think the 50-50 Senate was a disadvantage to those of us that want her to travel and continue to advance the cause of the country,” said Booker. “But again, it’s constitutionally prescribed. She stepped up and did her job nobly.”
For example, in October 2021, Harris abruptly departed a meeting with federal workers to cast a tiebreaking vote to advance the administration’s civil rights chief for the Education Department.
“Please forgive me, these things come in based on who shows up in the Senate,” she told the workers before leaving for the Capitol. “It turns out everyone showed up, so I have to go break that vote so we can get that nomination through.”
Harris has confirmed that having to be on stand-by for votes had made a “big difference” in her ability to do her job.
“I needed to be available and on call essentially throughout the week when the Senate was in session in the event that my vote was needed,” she said in a 2022 interview with National Public Radio. “And so that had a real impact on the ability to then plan any kind of travel, be it domestic or international.”
But Harris may ultimately break fewer ties in the 118th Congress than in the last two-year session after Democrats increased their majority this Congress to 51-49 from 50-50. She’s voted three times so far in 2023, breaking 48-48 ties caused in part by the extended health-related absences of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa).
“I do think there’s a little more breathing room now because Democrats did well in the midterms,” said Cristóbal Alex, a Democratic strategist and former Biden administration official.
Pete Kavanaugh, Biden’s former deputy campaign manager, said the legislative benefits of Harris’s staying close to Capitol Hill outweighs the disadvantages to her of being kept from travel.
“Being in the Senate to cast votes maybe inhibits your ability to travel a couple of days, but that just pales in comparison to the impact that being in the Senate to cast those votes has,” he said.
Harris’s 15 votes in 2021 were the most by a vice president in a calendar year, even topping the 13 votes her predecessor Mike Pence cast during four years as Donald Trump’s vice president. Pence’s first vote, to confirm Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, was the first tiebreaker on a Cabinet nomination, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The pace stands in stark contrast to Harris’s boss. Biden didn’t cast a single tiebreaking vote during eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, making him the only vice president to serve two four-year terms without doing so. Unlike Harris, Biden never presided over a Senate that was 50-50 or 51-49.
No vice president has ever broken a tie to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination last year raised the possibility Harris might be needed to break a tie, but three Republican senators joined Democrats to install the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Harris presided over the 53-47 vote.
The vice president’s role as president of the Senate is usually ceremonial. The Constitution stipulates the vice president may not vote “unless they be equally divided.”
Vice presidents have cast 297 tiebreaking votes since 1789, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government and the Senate Historical Office.
Dick Cheney cast eight votes in eight years as George W. Bush’s vice president—the last in March 2008, when he intervened in a procedural vote on the fiscal 2009 budget resolution.
A Cheney vote in May 2003 led to passage of President George W. Bush’s $330 billion tax-reduction package (Public Law 108-27).
“By the time I took my seat as president of the Senate on May 23, I felt I had earned my keep. And when I cast the tiebreaking vote to ensure the bill’s passage, I was sure I had,” Cheney wrote in a 2011 memoir, “In My Time.”
Two other consequential tiebreaking votes on economic policy came in 1993, when Vice President Al Gore broke deadlocks to advance President Bill Clinton’s deficit-reduction package, which included a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
“I want to thank the vice president for his unwavering contribution to the landslide,” Clinton said after Gore broke a 50-50 tie on final passage that August.
Seemeen Hashem in Washington, DC also contributed to this story.