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I was reading a recent question on why a Vice President might choose to use a negative casting vote on a tied vote in the Senate rather than just letting the motion fail by withholding their vote, when I wondered how common this latter scenario actually is.

I know it's happened in the past because I found a few relevant excerpts from Riddick's Senate Procedure:

On occasions he (the Vice President) has refused to vote in the case of a tie;25

25Apr. 17, 1917, 65-1, Record, p. 767; see also tie votes on the following dates; Feb. 7, 1919, Jan. 22, 1920, Feb. 9, 1921, July 18,1921, Apr. 7, 1922, May 8, 1928.

and

In one instance in 1949, the Vice President announced the tie vote and stated that inasmuch as the Chair would vote in the negative, his vote is not necessary to defeat the motion.38

38Oct. 18. 1949, 81-1, Journal, p. 809, Record. p. 14842

These examples are all from over 70 years ago though - has the current Vice President, Kamala Harris, ever chosen not to exercise her casting vote? By this, I mean that she was:

  • Physically presiding over the Senate when a tied vote occurred;
  • Had the opportunity to place a casting vote (i.e. not on votes which require more than a simple majority), and;
  • Chose not to vote in the negative, but to let the motion fail.

If this scenario has never happened during Kamala Harris' term of office, when was the last time this happened?

2 Answers 2

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The last time this happened was in the early morning of February 5th, 2021 - Kamala Harris was presiding over the Senate and had, in fact, just used her casting vote to pass Chuck Schumer's amendment 888 to S.Con.Res.5.

On the very next vote, on Mitch McConnell's amendment 889 to the same bill, the Senate divided 50-50 once again. Instead of casting her vote in the negative, Harris reported the vote as follows (C-SPAN, 19:22:10):

Are there any Senators in the Chamber wishing to vote or to change his or her vote? If not, the Yeas are 50, the Nays are 50, and the amendment is not agreed to.

Compare also the reporting of the two votes on the Senate's website - the vote on Schumer's amendment is reported as:

Vote Counts:

  • YEAs: 50
  • NAYs: 50
  • Vice President of the United States Voted: Yea

while on McConnell's amendment, there is no reference to how the Vice President voted.

This is the only occasion to date on which Harris has chosen not to use her casting vote while in the chair - based on comparing the Senate's list of casting votes she has used to the list of tied votes in the Senate as reported in the dataset here. For all other tied votes which she presided over, she has cast her vote in favour of the motion.

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    What are the implications of her abstaining instead of voting nay?
    – SirHawrk
    May 18 at 11:55
  • 1
    @SirHawrk That seems to be the gist of the question linked in the OP.
    – reirab
    May 18 at 15:02
  • @SirHawrk the default in most parliamentary procedure (including the senate) is "do nothing". If there is not a strong enough support behind a specific course of action, it is not adopted and "do nothing" continues. ("Strong enough" varies by what category of action they are trying to take for some thing it's unanimous, for other a strong majority. For most business it's a bare majority.) This is a feature, not a bug. As such, if there is not sufficient support, the action fails.
    – fectin
    May 18 at 18:44
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    @SirHawrk Generally, it's good practice for the presiding officer to maintain an appearance of neutrality while presiding. She can (and should) have opinions, but her duty to the deliberative process is paramount: no debating, and refrain from voting whenever she can do so consistent with her opinions (i.e., only vote when it would make a difference, which means only to pass an otherwise-tied vote). Most bodies, including the senate, have ways to let someone else preside if she feels she needs to participate instead of moderate.
    – fectin
    May 18 at 18:51
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    I feel that "This is the only occasion to date on which Harris has chosen not to use her casting vote while in the chair" implies that on previous occasions when she didn't support the bill, she used her vote to kill it rather than abstaining. But that's misleading, since on all other occasions, she cast her vote in favor.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 18 at 18:52
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Based on the senate.gov link from CDJB's excellent answer, perhaps a better question would be when the last time a Vice President has cast a negative vote rather than simply choosing to let the measure fail. It seems that simply letting it fail is rather the default.

The senate.gov link provides all of the tie-breaking votes cast by the Vice President since 1981 and also has a link to a PDF of those cast from 1789 through 1980.

Since 1981, the votes cast by the Vice President were:

Harris (2021-present): 23 yea, 0 nay

Pence (2017-2021): 13 yea, 0 nay

Biden (2009-2017): 0 yea, 0 nay

Cheney (2001-2009): 8 yea, 0 nay

Gore (1993-2001): 4 yea, 0 nay

Quayle (1989-1993): 0 yea, 0 nay

Bush (1981-1989): 5 yea, 2 nay

As you can, see, it's relatively rare for the VP to vote at all, and even more rare for them to vote Nay. That has only happened 2 times since 1981 and the last time was in 1986, compared to early 2021 for letting a measure fail by not voting.

Indeed, 43% of the total votes cast by a Vice President - either Yea or Nay - since 1981 have been within the past 16 months. This is due to the somewhat-unusual 50-50 party split that has existed in the Senate since January 2021 following the 2020 election season. It's not unlikely that, before the party composition of the Senate likely changes in early 2023, Vice President Harris will have cast more votes (as Vice President) in the Senate than all Vice Presidents since (at least) 1981 combined.

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