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Lisa Murkowski’s unusual vote on Kavanaugh, explained

Sen. Lisa Murkowski paired her vote with another Republican in a rare and savvy move.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) at the Capitol in June 2017.
Bill Clark/Getty Images

When the US Senate cast its votes on Saturday on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the outcome was known in advance because all the pivotal players had announced their intended votes. However, there was a dramatic and unusual thing that happened during that vote. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK) defected from her party and voted “present” rather than “yes” or “no.” What was that?

Turns out it was a black swan.

It’s was a savvy, strategic, complex move, filled with contradictions. It was both partisan and rebellious. It was courageous and cowardly. Feminine and feminist.

The decline of paired voting in Congress

Murkowski used a procedure that used to be more common in the Senate called “pairing.” Pairing occurs when two senators make an agreement to allow their votes to cancel each other out. In Murkowski’s case, she had paired with Montana Republican Steve Daines, whose daughter was getting married on Saturday. Daines could not return in time for the vote without missing his daughter’s big day, and the party leadership did not want to hold the vote longer than was necessary.

But it turned out that neither Murkowski’s or Daines’s votes were critical to the outcome. Kavanaugh would be confirmed regardless of what either of them did. So Murkowski offered to pair with Daines so that he could attend the wedding and the vote could proceed as scheduled Saturday afternoon. By voting “present” Murkowski gave Daines some political cover for missing the vote, since his absent “yea” didn’t hurt the party cause. Murkowski didn’t need to vote “nay” to achieve the desired effect, although functionally she might as well have, since her action did not help the candidate. But it did help Daines.

Many have decried the decline of comity in Congress in recent years and might see Murkowski’s gesture as a tip to the old-fashioned days where politicians showed more humanity toward one another than we’re used to seeing today. And it’s reasonable to see Murkowski’s courtesy toward Daines as an altruistic act, in that sense.

But recent political science research may help us to see it in a different light. Research by Patrick Rickert, a PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis, shows that the rate of pairing has declined as Congress has become more polarized. See the figure below that shows the rate of pairing across time.

Number of paired votes in US Congress, 1951 to 2017, as complied by Patrick Rickert.
Rickert, Patrick. “The Changing Partisan Dynamics of Reciprocity: An Autopsy of Paired Voting in the United States Senate.” Paper presented at the Congressional Rules and Procedure Conference. University of Georgia, May 17, 2018.

Rickert explains that the decline of pairing is the result of party polarization. As parties become more internally homogeneous, there is less opportunity for pairs to form within a party because, by definition, pairs must be votes cast in opposite directions.

In addition, as the two parties have diverged from one another, there is less opportunity for cross-party pairing to occur. Since modern political parties are both more polarized and more internally homogenous, we don’t observe pairs very often anymore, so maybe Murkowski was acting out of the kindness of her heart.

One vote, many meanings

Maybe it was kindness. But it’s also the case that this pairing serves her political ambitions rather well. Her decision to buck her party and vote “no” on Kavanaugh indicates that she felt considerable pressure from Alaskans on this topic. Reporting showed a surprising number of Alaskans who went to Washington to make their case in person. Opposing the nomination is consistent with a progressive, perhaps feminist viewpoint that she determined was more in line with her electorate than the party’s preferred stance.

By pairing with Daines she gave political cover to him for missing the vote, but also some for herself. An act of kindness toward a co-partisan is a sort of feminine care-taking gesture that just might take the edge off the rebelliousness of bucking the party, to the eyes of a more traditional voter. And because Daines is also a Republican, her act allows her to both defect from the party while helping a co-partisan — a rare act indeed.

One might say that voting “present” rather than “no” is a cop-out, but it’s harder to see it that way in the broader context of why she did it, and given her open statements about her intention to oppose the nominee.

If Murkowski had not paired with Daines, the outcome would have been the same (the vote would be 50-49, rather than 50-48). If McConnell had held the vote, everyone would have stayed late or come back on Sunday and the vote would have been 51-49. It’s possible Murkowski feared a delayed vote and saw the pairing as another way to hasten the end of Kavanaugh confirmation debacle.

She may have paired out of kindness to her colleague, or she may have paired out of some expediency for herself. Further interviews with her may reveal this over time. Either way the move was strategic and smart.

Since congressional parties are still moving further apart from one another, while showing less intra-party diversity, we should not expect pairings to make a comeback. And when we do see them, we should not read too much into these rare events, as if to lull ourselves into thinking congress may be becoming more humane and functional.

Sometimes political circumstance presents the right mix of instrumental incentives, personal connections, and opportunity to show kindness that the result is a black swan.