A hypothetical scenario: The incoming US Senate is divided 50-49 with one Independent Senator. That Independent, let's say "she", has not committed to caucus with either party. Should she remain truly independent, could the plurality party effectively rule as the majority by a 50-49 vote?

I am aware of some reasons why she would tend not to take this path, committee assignments particularly. I am curious as to what might happen if she acted in spite of these reasons.

  • 1
    Why is this vote different then any other? How would it be different from a 50/50 split when one on the side didn't vote no and abstained?
    – Joe W
    Dec 10, 2022 at 0:38
  • If the rules require an outright majority of the body and not a plurality of those participating. This vote is different from most others because the VP is out of the loop. I see two likely answers - the plurality can take power 50-49, or they have to negotiate to get to 51+.
    – Politank-Z
    Dec 10, 2022 at 0:39
  • That is why I asked how it is any different from 50 people from one party voting yes, 49 people from the other party voting no and 1 person abstaining. Could even go as far as 50 people from one party voting yes and 50 people from the other party abstaining. Both of those situations would be the same and a VP wouldn't be able to break the tie. If it was really that easy to prevent an organizing resolution why did none of the 50 Republicans in the Senate abstain from voting in 2020 when they had 50 members and there was 48 Democrats and 2 Independent members?
    – Joe W
    Dec 10, 2022 at 1:13
  • The Senate has been controlled by one party for the last two years on the strength of a 51-50 vote. Why would 50-49 be any different?
    – phoog
    Dec 10, 2022 at 23:43

2 Answers 2


A 50-49 vote is a victory for the yeas.

It is important to understand that the American system inherited much in the way of procedure from the British system. In the House of Commons, a motion is generally considered to pass if more vote in favor of it than against, and this would have been the default understanding of the founders at the time. It is also how both houses of Congress operate today.*

The US Constitution does apply a quorum requirement in Article I, Section 5:

Each House [of Congress] shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each House may provide.

It also imposes a 2/3 supermajority requirement for treaties, impeachments, veto overrides, and Constitutional amendments. Other than that, the Constitution is largely silent on the question of how many votes you need for "ordinary" legislation and resolutions. Perhaps the founders simply thought this too obvious to write down, or perhaps they figured Congress would be able to work out details like this in its own rulemaking process.

In any event, SCOTUS and the rest of the federal government likely have no say here. The next paragraph of Section 5 is very clear:

Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.

Congress gets to evaluate its own rules. If they do a bad job of it (in our subjective opinion), then that's their problem. The rest of the government, and especially the judiciary, is not supposed to be in the business of second-guessing Congress's rules, except to the extent that Congress actually violates the Constitution.

* In the Senate, debate cannot be forcibly ended without a 3/5 vote of "the Senators duly chosen and sworn" - which is usually 60 senators unless there's a vacancy. This is a separate rule, independent of the simple majority required to actually pass a law once debate does end.


There are actually a few organizing resolutions and, in the absence of renegade senators in the majority party, all resolutions will pass by unanimous consent. The renegade senators could only affect the election of the President pro tempore of the Senate.

I really don't see anything in the hypothetical scenario that would have any effect.


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