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The Great Senate Deadlock of 1881

It is difficult to discuss an evenly divided Senate without at least a passing reference to the Great Senate Deadlock of 1881. When the Senate of the 47th Congress convened on March 4, 1881, its members included thirty-seven Republicans, thirty-seven Democrats, and two independents. That session had been called for the exclusive purpose of handling cabinet and agency nominations for the new administration of Republican President James A. Garfield. Under normal circumstances, the special session should have lasted about eleven days. In 1881 it ran for eleven chaotic weeks!

Senate party leaders quickly focused on the two independents. One of them, former Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois, had earlier announced that he would vote with the Democrats on such organizational matters as appointment of committees and selection of Senate officers. The other, William Mahone of Virginia, owed his recent election to support from a breakaway faction within his state's Democratic party.

The Senate of the previous Congress had operated under Democratic control for the first time in twenty years. Although their solid majority had vanished with the 1880 elections, Senate Democrats believed that as long as they could count on Mahone's vote they could continue to control the legislature's considerable fund of patronage appointments and key committee chairmanships. For their part, however, the Republicans had come too close to give up without trying to convert Mahone. If they could win him to their side, the party balance would be set at thirty-eight votes apiece, with Republican Vice President Chester A. Arthur casting the tie breaking vote for his party.

On March 14, 1881, as Democratic leader George Pendleton bravely dismissed rumors that the Republican White House had been employing "champagne and satisfaction" to sway the undecided Mahone, the Senate took up the Democratic slate of committee nominees. Vice President Arthur directed the secretary to call the roll.

All eyes came to rest on Mahone when the clerk reached his name. A journalist described Mahone as one of the "most peculiar figures in the Senate chamber." Weighing less than one hundred pounds, the five-foot-six-inch senator displayed a mane of abundant gray hair surmounting an angular frame perpetually clothed in black. When the dramatic moment arrived, Mahone, from his seat on the Democratic side, rose and cast his vote — with the Republicans! Having thereby clinched control of the Senate, the Republicans rocked the chamber with cheers and shouts.

On the following day, a large and ornate basket of flowers from the White House conservatory graced Mahone's desk. As the Republicans announced their choices for committee assignments, the terms of their bargain with the freshman Virginia senator became apparent. Mahone would chair the powerful Agriculture Committee, control selection of Senate officers, and have a major say in the distribution of executive branch patronage jobs in his state.

Secure in the possession of Mahone's vote and the tie-breaking power of the vice president, Senate Republicans quickly cast aside the Democrats' committee list and adopted their own. Then they moved to elect a Secretary and Sergeant at Arms. At this point, a newspaper correspondent observed that the Democratic senators "were not in a hilarious mood. Their contenances were those of mourners at a funeral. Behind their desks was a grim row of clerks witnessing with solemn interest the proceedings that would deprive them of snug positions."

Then the proceedings ground to a stalemate. With several Republicans absent due to illness or other business, the Democrats were able to stall by leaving the chamber each time Republicans tried to muster the thirty-nine-vote quorum necessary to conduct business. By this tactic they protected the Democratic Senate officers and staff by blocking a vote that would have replaced them with Republicans. As impatience grew within the White House over the long list of executive nominees awaiting confirmation, the Democrats hoped to strike a bargain that would keep their officers in place until the next regular session nine months later, while allowing Republicans, in control of committee chairmanships, to proceed with the confirmation process. Wondering out loud why the Republicans should object, a Democratic senator asked whether there were any charges of inefficiency against the existing staff that might justify their removal. A Republican countered: "Were there any against those whom you removed two years ago?" Pennsylvania Republican J.D. Cameron dismissed notions of a compromise by observing that "the present officers are good, but we have others just as good and we intend to put them in their places. It is a question of endurance and we had better settle it."

Although the debate outwardly focused on selection of Senate officers and committee clerks, the deeper issue rested on Democratic fears that the Republicans would make substantial inroads into their control of the "Solid South." They viewed the Republicans' success in luring Mahone away from the party, and the resulting disruption of the traditional Democratic hold over Virginia, as but the beginning of the contest. For their part, the Senate Republicans felt they needed to press the battle to honor their commitment to Mahone. The senator had promised the jobs of Secretary and Sergeant at Arms to prominent Virginia Readjusters, who were seeking additional signs of Republican favor to advance their candidates in the forthcoming state elections. As a result, the Republicans in the Senate vowed to "fight it out if it takes all summer" to give Mahone his patronage.

At this point an unexpected split in the Republican ranks developed over a major New York patronage appointment. In a tactical move against the Republican president, both of New York's Republican senators on May 16 dramatically resigned from the Senate. They fully expected that their state legislature would soon reelect them, thereby sending the White House a message about their political standing within New York. Unfortunately for them, the two senators had misread sentiments in the legislature and both failed to be reelected.

Their resignations had given the Democrats a two-vote majority in the Senate. But in the interests of wrapping up the deadlocked session, Democrats agreed not to reopen the issue of committee control. In return the Republicans allowed them to maintain control of the Senate's officers and their patronage. The Senate finally adjourned on May 20, less than a week after the resignations broke the deadlock.

When the Senate convened a second special session in October, the nation's political climate had changed dramatically. President Garfield had been assassinated and Chester Arthur now sat in the White House. With the vice presidency vacant, the Senate named Independent Democrat David Davis president pro tempore. An ideal presiding officer, the judicious Davis was described as "a neutral statesman who finds little of good and much of evil in each party." Following Davis's counsel that "it is best that the party which has the president and the House of Representatives should be held answerable for all public measures," the leadership of both parties agreed to perpetuate the organizational status quo. Leadership of the Senate committees remained in Republican hands, while the Democrats continued to control the offices of Secretary and Sergeant at Arms.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, during the Eighty-third Congress (1953-1955), the Senate briefly faced the possibility of another deadlock. In January 1953, Republicans took control of the Senate by a slim 48 to 47 margin, with one Republican-leaning independent. Six months into the session, shortly before the Senate adjourned for the year, Republican Majority Leader Robert Taft died. When the Senate reconvened in January 1954, the Ohio governor sent a Democrat to replace Taft, giving Senate Democrats a 48 to 47 margin. The independent senator, Oregon's Wayne Morse, agreed to vote with the Republicans on organizational matters, and Vice President Richard Nixon stood ready to cast necessary tie-breaking votes for the Republicans. Later that year, the deaths of several other senators gave the Democrats a temporary majority, but upcoming mid-term congressional election campaigns and a "lame duck" session to consider the possible censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy deeply preoccupied the Senate and kept it from repeating the experience of the Great Senate Deadlock of 1881.

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