King of the Senate

The Congress of the United States loves a rule. Check that ... the Congress loves lots of rules. And one of the easiest to understand is: majority rules. That simple rule may make the independent senator from Maine, Angus King, the most important senator after the midterms in November.

Just to review: In the House, the party with 218 or more of the 435 members runs the show. Right now, the Republicans chair the committees, decide what legislation makes it to the floor, control the calendar and declare whether smoking is to be allowed in the Speaker's office.

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A simple majority in the Senate does not imbue the party in power (currently the Democrats) with the same juggernaut status. Yes, the committees, and the schedule, and the legislative agenda belong to the majority. But the founding fathers envisioned a more deliberative body than the unruly House, less beholden to the whims of public opinion. Thus did the framers codify in the Constitution that senators would have to be (in theory) older and wiser than their more visceral legislative siblings. One must be 30 and a citizen for at least nine years to seek the Senate, just 25 and a citizen for seven years to run for a House seat. Six-year Senate terms, rather than two-year terms for House members, allow time to mitigate bruised egos wounded by bitter debates. That's the theory, anyway.

Housing the extraconstitutional determinants of the "world's greatest deliberative body" (such a lovely and hopeful, if hackneyed, phrase) are the standard rules of the Senate. To be clear, the Constitution states that "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings." It makes no stipulation as to what the rules must be. And so by virtue of trial and error, experience, custom, tradition and some occasional sawdust and glue, today's Senate rules determine the more interesting battles being waged. It's often the case that procedural legerdemain trumps forensic foils; procedural pens are mightier than rhetorical swords, you might say.

Back to Sen. King, and how electoral circumstance may redound to his great benefit.

Senate Democrats now hold 53 seats, with two independents (King and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont) caucusing with the party. Republicans hold 45 seats. The GOP hopes to gain a net of six seats in November, which would give them the majority. If they net five seats, then the balance is 50-50, with Vice President Biden casting the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

Wait, check that ... if Republicans hold 50 seats, then the Democrats hold only 48 seats.  Sanders and King, the independents, might decide that they would be better off lining up with Republicans. Sanders is unlikely to do so, since he's a socialist; I'm pretty sure both he and the Republicans would be uncomfortable teammates.

King, on the other hand, could make it work. His stewardship as governor of Maine is not too far distant in the past, and his work with both parties in the state, not to mention the prickly people of the Pine Tree State (disclosure: I was born one, so I'll say "prickly" if I want!) deems a handshake with the Senate GOP caucus a lot less unsavory than George Bailey pumping palms with Old Man Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Might it be up to King to decide, if he wants, to be part of the Senate majority?

Pretty much.

According to Kate Scott, assistant historian at the Senate Historical Office, at the beginning of a new Congress, the Senate adopts an organizing resolution to determine committee ratios, committee membership, and to establish agreements between the parties on the operation of the Senate. Typically this is routine, but in a split Senate, deciding who is in charge can get more ... shall we say ... complicated.

Three example of such a divided Senate are instructive.

In 1881, one of two independents, William Mahone of Virginia, amid rumors that the White House and President James Garfield were offering "champagne and satisfaction," threw in his lot with Republicans. He actually, it turned out, was more interested in the coveted chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, and a few other trinkets of power, according to the late Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-W.Va.) series on the history of the Senate. That made it 41-39 for the Republicans.

In 1953, the Senate convened with 48 Rs, 47 Ds, and one independent. The next two years saw changes in the majority, by virtue of eight deaths, and several retirements and presidential appointments. Yet the Senate maintained the rule by Republican majority set in the opening days of that 83rd Congress. By dint of death, or sheer fatigue of rearranging the stationery, civility reigned.

In 2001, after the contentious election and Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, the Senate was split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. Their respective leaders, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), worked out a power-sharing arrangement that seemed to work pretty well until Sen. Jim Jeffords, a Republican from Vermont, switched parties, giving the Democrats the majority, which they then lost after the 2002 midterms.

Several gamed-out scenarios in the 2014 midterms could provide Sen. King of Maine the chance to control his destiny. It would, after all, be better for his constituents for him to have a higher profile on a key committee, right? A chairmanship here, a power lever there, all would add up to a more powerful voice in the Senate for the hardy people of Maine. Maybe he would be satisfied by whatever constitutes the modern-day equivalent of "champagne and satisfaction." Moxie and whoopie pies? (It's a Maine thing.)

King's office referred me to his numerous pledges to do what is in the best interest of his constituency if the decision is his to make. Most recently, Jeff Zeleny of ABC News asked King about the possibility of caucusing with Republicans — "having lunch with the group," as King characterized it. If that's the case, he's not committing to anything on the menu.

Specific committee chairmanships and similar enticements are not, as yet, part of the discussions. King says that both parties have been very cordial, lighthearted and nonspecific about being part of the respective teams. "You'll like the weather over here," his GOP colleagues aver. Democrats say "Stay here!" Chances are good that, post-Nov. 4, meteorology will bow to meatier blandishments.

As historian Kate Scott notes, "There is a level of unpredictability to it all."

Farley is managing editor and host of "The Morning Briefing" and "The Midday Briefing" on P.O.T.U.S., Sirius XM's 24-hour politics channel.

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