Jim Jeffords, sitting pretty. 

Kingmakers of the Next Congress

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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The ghost of Jeezum Jim Jeffords, the folksy three-term senator who died in August, may soon haunt the U.S. Senate.

In 2001, with the Senate split 50-50, Vice-President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote allowed Republicans to control the chamber -- until Jeffords, a Republican from Vermont, became an independent and threw in with the Democrats. The deposed Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, called it a "coup of one."

Democrats have caucused with at least one independent ever since, including the current pair, Maine's Angus King and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. Ideology motivates Sanders, who is a proud socialist. Pragmatism drives King: He gains power in joining the majority. King, however, has stated that he is open to caucusing with either party in the next Congress. Come November, he may have company.

Recent polls in Kansas suggest Greg Orman, the 45-year old independent running for Senate, is in a toss-up race against the Republican incumbent, Pat Roberts. Meanwhile in South Dakota, a new poll shows another independent, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, ahead of the Democratic nominee and neck-and-neck with the Republican, Mike Rounds, who had previously been considered a heavy favorite.

An Orman or Pressler win would be historic: There have never been three independent senators at a time. It could also fuel a protracted bidding war between the two parties.

King, Orman and Pressler have all said they are open to caucusing with either party. If neither party wins outright control of the Senate, King -- along with Orman and Pressler, if they win -- would become the Capitol equivalents of LeBron James: highly prized free agents. (Sanders, by contrast, would sooner denounce maple syrup than join forces with Republicans.)

The independents would have enormous leverage to extract financial benefits for their states and political benefits for themselves. While King and Orman might prefer aligning with the Democrats, and Pressler would lean toward the Republicans, all would be able to play the parties against each other. Constantly.

Orman has said that if he finds himself unhappy with his chosen party, he could switch sides mid-session. If the Senate is closely divided, that threat would translate into permanent influence. Perks will certainly be on the table. But policy -- such as immigration -- could be as well.

King voted for the Senate immigration bill. Orman and Pressler have both said they support a path to citizenship. If Republican leaders need their support to form a majority, passing an immigration bill could be part of the price. Democrats would be equally beholden in a closely divided body.

It's rare for the Senate to be divided by one or two votes, and rarer still for independents to be kingmakers. In 1955, an independent senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, helped tip the chamber's scales to the Democrats. It could happen again -- and either party could come out on top.

Corrects Wayne Morse's last name in final paragraph.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net