What’s the story?
- The Senate majority leader and speaker of the House are the two most significant lawmakers in Congress because they control the agenda on the floors of their respective chambers in the vast majority of circumstances.
- While the Constitution specifically establishes the role of the speaker and tasks the full House with voting to elect them, the origins of and selection process for the Senate majority is quite different.
How is the Senate majority leader chosen?
- Before a new Congress convenes, members of the Democratic and Republican conferences meet and vote to elect a leader to represent their parties on the Senate floor as majority and minority leaders. The leader of whichever party holds a majority then serves as the majority leader.
- In cases where the Senate is evenly divided, the majority leader is determined by the party of the sitting vice president, who has the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote on the Senate floor in favor of their party’s position.
- For example, the last 50-50 Senate split occurred during the 107th Congress (2001-2003), which began in the closing weeks of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Because Vice President Al Gore (D) could serve as the tie-breaking vote, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) served as the majority leader until Inauguration Day. Once President George W. Bush was sworn in, Vice President Dick Cheney (R) became the tie-breaking vote, so Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) served as majority leader going forward.
- A similar dynamic will play out in the current 117th Congress with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) set to transfer the title of majority leader to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Senators-elect Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) will be sworn in next week, as will California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D), who will take the seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA). That will bring the Senate to a post-inaugural 50-50 split in which Harris is the tie-breaking vote, making Schumer the majority leader.
What does the Senate majority leader do?
- The Senate majority leader schedules bills and nominations for consideration on the floor following coordination with the leadership of the chamber’s committees.
- They work with the minority leader to craft unanimous consent agreements to speed the consideration of floor business, and when those efforts are unsuccessful, file cloture motions to limit further debate on an issue and forestall a filibuster.
- The majority leader has the right to be recognized first by the presiding officer, which allows them to offer motions or amendments prior to other senators.
- If the majority leader wants the Senate to consider a bill without votes on amendments offered by senators, they use their right of first recognition to go through a process known as “filling the amendment tree.”
- “Amendment trees” are essentially a diagram that visualizes the precedence governing the proposal of, and votes on, amendments in the Senate. The original bill is the “trunk” of the tree, with “limbs” coming off of that represent first- and second-degree amendments.
- The majority leader can fill the amendment tree by offering their own amendments on each “limb” of precedence, which can freeze out other senators from offering further amendments. This allows the majority leader to speed up consideration of a bill by limiting or precluding amendment votes, avoid votes on non-germane or politically controversial amendments, or gain an advantage through the sequence of amendments offered.
— Eric Revell
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