I'm curious about the implications of the fact that two senators in the 116th Congress are officially independent. However, on election maps, they sometimes show as Democrats because they caucus with Democrats. They are both in New England.

Currently, the party affiliations of the senators are 45-53-2. Would a net gain of 5 seats in the 2020 elections, leading to a 50-48-2 split, allow a Democrat to become the Majority Leader?

My guess is that it would, because the Democrats would have a de facto majority with 52-48, but this would only be 50-48 when factoring out Sanders and King.

This is not a prediction; this is a question about the position of Majority Leader. The Democrats would hold a de facto majority in the Senate with a gain of 4 seats or maybe even 3 with the vice presidency.

  • Just to be clearer, are you asking if it would be considered a majority for the purpose of, for example, things like which party leader is called the 'majority leader'? Or are you asking whether '50% + very often 2%' falls into an official or colloquial definition of 'majority'? If it's the second question, that might be a bit too opinion-based or trivial, and isn't really related to politics specifically.
    – Giter
    Jun 17, 2020 at 22:42
  • Majority leader Jun 18, 2020 at 11:44
  • In that case, rather than giving real-world hypotheticals and specifics that seem like speculation, it may be simpler to just ask "In the US Senate, if no party has more than 50 members, is the 'majority' party the single largest party, or the party who can form the largest coalition?". You could also give a more abstract example so as to not risk looking partisan, such as 'Party A has 49 members, Party B has 48, and Party C has 3 but most of the time votes with Party B. Is Party A considered the majority at 49 members, or is Party B the majority at 48+3?'
    – Giter
    Jun 18, 2020 at 17:30

1 Answer 1


The title of 'Majority Leader' has been used since the Democrat & Republican Senate Caucuses started electing their floor leaders in 1920 and 1925 respectively, but it is not a constitutionally defined position. Since then, however, there have been a few occasions which provide a precedent for the scenario you describe.

There is a very recent precedent for a scenario such as this in the 110th Congress, from 2007 to 2009. At the beginning of the session, the Democrats & the Republicans had 49 senators each. There were also two independent senators, Bernie Sanders & Joe Lieberman, both who caucused with the Democrats. As a result, a Democratic senator, Harry Reid, became Majority Leader. Given this precedent, we can conclude that in the 50(52)-48 scenario you describe, a Democratic senator would serve as Majority Leader.

However, even if the independent senators didn't caucus with the Democrats, a Democrat would still become Majority Leader. We can conclude this from the precedent set by, for example, the 83rd Congress, which saw 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and 1 Independent elected. This Independent Senator was Wayne Morse, who caucused with neither party during this Congress. Despite only controlling 50% of the Senate, rather than 50% + 1, a Republican, Robert A. Taft, became the Majority Leader until his death in 1953. As a result, we can conclude that in the scenario you describe, a Democrat would become Majority Leader despite technically not controlling more than 50% of the Senate.

As we can see from the above, the title is afforded to the floor leader of the party which controls the Senate - the de facto majority party - rather than any official designation based on the numbers of seats. As the Vice President holds the casting vote, the only scenario unaccounted for is if the Vice President is also an independent candidate, and no party has enough senators to pass votes without relying on the VP. This was confirmed by the 107th Congress in which there were 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans; the Majority Leader changed depending on the party affiliation of the Vice President.

In fact, if we take into account all of the above, even if the Democrats won 48 seats, and the Republicans 50, assuming that the two independent senators caucus with the Democrats and that the Vice President is also a Democrat, a Democrat would serve as Majority Leader despite a minority of senators being officially designated as Democrats.

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