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Pence Has Already Done Something Biden Never Did: Break A Senate Tie

Vice President Mike Pence exercised his constitutional right to cast a tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate for the first time on Tuesday, breaking a tie on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos to become secretary of education. Aside from the importance of the confirmation itself, the vote was noteworthy in other ways as well. Here are a few reasons why.

Has a vice president ever broken a tie on a nominee before?

Vice presidents have broken ties on presidential nominees before, but Tuesday was the first time it’s happened for a Cabinet nominee. In 2015, there were reports that Vice President Joe Biden might be called in to break a tie on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, but the vote in the Senate ended up being 56-43. Tie votes on nominees in general are rare; before Tuesday, there had been only seven tie-breaking votes cast on confirmations, according to the Senate Historical office. There have also been a handful of vice presidential tie-breakers on non-confirmation votes related to nominees (motions on postponements or motions to proceed, for example).

DATE VICE PRESIDENT NOMINEE POSITION CONFIRMATION VOTE?
May 5, 1800 Thomas Jefferson Joshua Johnson Superindentent of Stamps
March 17, 1806 George Clinton John Armstrong Minister to Spain
Feb. 16, 1826 John C. Calhoun Robert Rottengers Purser of the Navy
May 18, 1830 John C. Calhoun Amos Kendall Fourth auditor of the Treasury
May 28, 1830 John C. Calhoun M.M. Nash Surveyor and Inspector Port of NY
May 28, 1830 John C. Calhoun M.M. Nash Surveyor and Inspector Port of NY
Jan. 13, 1832 John C. Calhoun Martin Van Buren Minister to Great Britain
Jan. 13, 1832 John C. Calhoun Martin Van Buren Minister to Great Britain
April 15, 1846 George M. Dallas Gideon Welles Chief of the Bureau of Provisions
April 15, 1846 George M. Dallas Gideon Welles Chief of the Bureau of Provisions
March 17, 1862 Hannibal Hamlin Edwin D. Morgan Major General in Volunteer Force
July 23, 1986 George H.W. Bush Daniel Manion Court of Appeals for Seventh Circuit
Feb. 7, 2017 Mike Pence Betsy DeVos Secretary of Education
Vice presidential tie-breaking votes related to nominations

Source: Senate Historical Office

 

How often do vice presidents break Senate ties?

The average vice president has broken about five ties during his time in office; the median vice president has broken three. Twelve vice presidents, including Biden, never broke a tie; Biden was the longest-serving vice president to never do so.

VICE PRESIDENT FIRST YEAR OF TERM TIES BROKEN
John Adams 1789 29
John C. Calhoun 1825 28
George M. Dallas 1845 19
Schuyler Colfax 1869 17
Richard M. Johnson 1837 14
George Clinton 1805 12
John C. Breckinridge 1857 9
Dick Cheney 2001 8
Richard M. Nixon 1953 8
Alben W. Barkley 1949 8
Thomas R. Marshall 1913 8
George H.W. Bush 1981 7
Hannibal Hamlin 1861 7
William A. Wheeler 1877 6
Elbridge Gerry 1813 6
Al Gore 1993 4
Hubert H. Humphrey 1965 4
Henry A. Wallace 1941 4
James S. Sherman 1909 4
Levi P. Morton 1889 4
Martin Van Buren 1833 4
John Nance Garner 1933 3
Charles Curtis 1929 3
Chester A. Arthur 1881 3
Millard Fillmore 1849 3
Daniel D. Tompkins 1817 3
Aaron Burr 1801 3
Thomas Jefferson 1797 3
Spiro T. Agnew 1969 2
Charles G. Dawes 1925 2
Adlai E. Stevenson 1893 2
Mike Pence 2017 1
Walter Mondale 1977 1
Harry S. Truman 1945 1
Garret A. Hobart 1897 1
Henry Wilson 1873 1
Joe Biden 2009 0
Dan Quayle 1989 0
Nelson A. Rockefeller 1974 0
Gerald R. Ford 1973 0
Lyndon B. Johnson 1961 0
Calvin Coolidge 1921 0
Charles W. Fairbanks 1905 0
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 0
Thomas A. Hendricks 1885 0
Andrew Johnson 1865 0
William Rufus King 1853 0
John Tyler 1841 0
Senate ties broken by vice presidents

Source: Senate Historical Office

 

When was the last tie-breaking vote?

Dick Cheney broke a tie on a vote related to a budget plan on March 13, 2008.

START END DAYS BETWEEN
Feb. 14, 1899 Feb. 2, 1911 4,370
March 24, 1881 Jan. 14, 1891 3,583
Feb. 14, 1919 May 21, 1928 3,384
March 13, 2008 Feb. 7, 2017 3,253
Jan. 14, 1850 March 15, 1858 2,982
April 17, 1934 Feb. 6, 1940 2,121
Sept. 22, 1987 June 24, 1993 2,102
Nov. 4, 1977 July 13, 1983 2,077
May 2, 1960 Aug. 17, 1965 1,933
Feb. 10, 1819 May 17, 1824 1,923
Biggest gaps between tie-breaking votes

Source: Senate Historical Office

 

Is this the soonest a vice president has broken a tie after being sworn in?

No, but it’s close. Pence has been vice president for 18 days. Chester A. Arthur cast a tie-breaking vote on March 18, 1881, 14 days after becoming vice president.

VICE PRESIDENT DAYS TO FIRST TIE-BREAKER
Chester A. Arthur 14
Mike Pence 18
Dick Cheney 73
Harry S. Truman 80
John Adams 88
John N. Garner 90
Richard M. Nixon 149
Elbridge Gerry 149
Al Gore 155
Spiro T. Agnew 198
Shortest times between swearing-in and first tie-breaker

Source: Senate Historical Office

 

How likely is Pence to cast more tie-breaking votes?

The partisan makeup of the Senate — 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats,1 is closer than any full Senate since the end of the George W. Bush administration. That means that only two Republicans need to vote against a measure for there to be a tie. So while it’s not a sure thing — getting even two senators to vote against their party can be difficult — there’s a good chance that there will be more such votes.

Footnotes

  1. Including two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Aaron Bycoffe is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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