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Crist’s ‘I’ll Caucus With the People’ Has Limits

Despite his vows of neutrality, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is likely to caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans should he advance to the Senate, if only because failing to pick a side would exclude him from the chamber’s choice committees and dramatically reduce his influence.

Crist, a lifelong Republican until being chased out of the GOP primary in April by former state Speaker Marco Rubio, is running as an Independent and has declined to specify which conference he would join should he win Florida’s open Senate seat this fall. The governor continues to answer that question by insisting he will “caucus with the people of Florida,” even while hiring Democratic consultants to advise him and making overtures to some top Democrats.

Not since 1953, when Oregon’s Wayne Morse left the GOP but declined to join the Democrats, has a Senator served as a true Independent. But, just as Morse found out when the Republican majority immediately stripped him of his committee assignments, Crist’s ability to legislate would be severely constrained if he honored his threat to remain independent. (Morse joined the Democratic Conference in 1955, after being promised whatever committee assignments he wanted.)

The Crist campaign referred a request for comment Monday on the governor’s intentions to a Friday interview he conducted on “Hardball” with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Notably, during the interview Crist declined to say what he would do if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered him an assignment on the Appropriations panel in exchange for caucusing with the Democrats.

“I think what’s most important is that you stand with the people of your state,” Crist said. “I get asked all the time: ‘Are you going to caucus with the Republicans, are you going to caucus with the Democrats?’ I’m going to caucus with the people of Florida. You know, they’re tired of gridlock politics, of Washington not being able to get anything accomplished, and they want somebody who will be an honest broker, go to Washington and fight for them first.”

But an examination of Senate rules and historical precedent reveal there is very little Crist might be able to get done for either his state, or the country, should he decline to caucus with either the Democrats or the Republicans. The committees are where nearly all major legislation is heard, amended and voted on before proceeding to the floor for consideration by the full Senate, and slots on choice panels are valued precisely for the political and policy leverage they afford Members over the chamber’s agenda and purse strings.

Crist’s opponents are attempting to cast his position on this matter as one of political opportunism, while also warning that Florida’s interests stand to go ignored in the Senate. It is an issue the Republican and Democratic candidates are likely to harp on down the stretch of the fall campaign if the governor doesn’t change his tune.

“Charlie Crist is running for the Senate simply to be important, not to actually do something important. So, it’s not surprising he doesn’t care whether he could actually get anything done. That’s a complete afterthought to him after his primary concern, which is getting elected,” Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said.

Crist is in a competitive three-way race with Rubio and whoever emerges from the Democratic primary contest between Rep. Kendrick Meek and billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene. The average of all surveys taken from July 9 to Aug. 1 showed Crist ahead of the pack at 36.8 percent support, followed by Rubio at 31.8 percent and Meek, the Democrat most often polled, at 15.8 percent.

Since the 1840s, Senate rules have dictated that the leadership of the two party caucuses determines committee assignments. Chamber rules do mandate that all Senators “shall” serve on two committees. But absent an appointment by one of the two parties, Crist’s committee assignments would likely be limited to a couple of inconsequential panels, as Morse found out during the 83rd Congress.

In the 1850s, when the first Republicans were elected to the Senate, they also found themselves in a committee no man’s land, caught between the Democrats and the Whigs, whom they eventually supplanted. Currently, there are two Independents serving — Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), but both caucus with the Democrats. Lieberman even serves as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Anytime we’ve had Independent Senators come in, they’ve generally chosen to sit with one conference or another,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said.

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