After a two-month reprieve from the albatross of breaking ties in the closely divided Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris was back on Capitol Hill this week to tip the scales again due to two health-related Democratic absences.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), 53, still recovering from a stroke last year, was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center two weeks ago for clinical depression and may be absent for weeks.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 89, who announced last month she would not seek reelection in 2024, was absent from Washington due to a health issue with no exact return date identified.
“Sen. Feinstein is in California this week dealing with a health matter,” her spokesperson said. “She hopes to return to Washington soon.”
That has meant that Harris, as president of the Senate, had to break three ties this week on votes related to two judicial appointments, including that of Araceli Martinez-Olguin to be U.S. District judge for the Northern District of California.
(Also out this week were Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
For the last two years, the Senate was divided at 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (including two independent senators who caucus with them). That meant any absence could change the outcome of a close vote. It also meant Harris was called to break 26 ties, far more than any other vice president in the modern era.
The responsibility kept Harris frequently tied to Washington, all but unable to travel — or sometimes just keep dinner plans — in case the Senate was split on a vote.
In the November midterm election, Democrats padded their majority by one vote, giving them slightly more breathing room and, in theory, eliminating the need to rely on Harris as much.
But the recent absences underscore the delicate nature of the Democratic Senate majority.
Because the House flipped to Republican control, the Senate has less legislation on its to-do list since most Democratic priorities would never get through the other chamber.
But the upper chamber still faces closes votes in confirming the Biden administration’s judicial and administrative nominations, including former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination as ambassador to India and former California labor chief Julie Su as the next U.S. Labor secretary.