Having titular control of the United States Senate is not exactly a prize. That's because the words "Senate" and "control" don't belong in the same sentence. The rules of the place make it next to impossible to run. Unlike the House, where the leadership gets to decide both the timing and the terms of debate for everything that comes to the floor, the Senate makes every member essentially a free agent, with the power to gum up the works whenever he or she feels like it. Veteran New York Times reporter Adam Clymer remembers once asking then-Majority Leader George Mitchell who was better at the job than most why he was interested in leaving the post to become commissioner of baseball. Why would Mitchell want a job that where he would get bossed around by 32 rich, egotistical maniacs? Mitchell smiled: "Only 32?"
And in the current circumstances, the job would be even worse than it was when Mitchell held it, because the margin is so close. Whichever party gets control in January will have a majority of 51 at most, which means the leader will be at least nine votes short of 60 the minimum required to get anything past a filibuster, which is for all intents and purposes what he will need to get anything controversial through. As the Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the incoming Minority Leader (at least as things stand at the moment) has noted, he can lose eight votes and still hold the line against any bill he does not want to pass. Majority Leader-to-Be Harry Reid has to pick up nine if he wants to get anything done.
Whoever gets the job will also be trying to do it as both parties head into what is the most wide-open presidential election in over half a century. It seems like half the Senate chamber is either running for President or thinking about it. All of those Senators will be grandstanding to the primary voters in their own party, and ingratiating themselves with the interest groups they think they need. That's hardly conducive to statesmanship or compromise.
Finally, with control comes responsibility to govern. Lyndon Johnson knew that. In 1954, the deaths of a number of Senators suddenly gave the Democrats more votes than the Republicans, but LBJ didn't make a play to become Majority Leader. He knew that whoever got the job would have to deal with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And consider what it would mean if the Republicans were to regain control of Senate committees. As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for instance, John McCain would not simply be able to call for more troops in Iraq a position that could conceivably help him in the Republican primaries. He would be in a position to actually help make it happen something that would put him at odds with more than 80% of voters. Does he really want that? For that matter, does the White House want him in that position?
If anything, running the majority has become more difficult in recent decades, as the once decorous Senate has grown to resemble the rowdy and partisan House. No longer do personal relationships and mossy traditions insulate the Senate chamber from the vitriol that has come to pass as political debate in this country. And as everyone who has held the job in recent years can tell you, much of that is aimed at the Majority Leader. "It really is better to throw grenades," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker, "than to have to catch them." So if you are looking for something to give either Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell this Christmas, think a Kevlar vest. One of them is going to need it.