Absent Mindedness

Asleep at the Senate

Charles Dawes Vice President tie-breaking vote asleep
30th US Vice President Charles Dawes (left) and 48th US Vice President Mike Pence (right)

On February 7, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence became the first Vice President to cast the tie-breaking vote in the US Senate for the confirmation of a cabinet member. Under the terms of the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate, but does not have a vote except for the purpose of breaking a tie. With the Senate evenly divided on the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Vice President Pence cast his vote in favor of confirming the President’s nomination, thus earning himself one more place in the history books.

One of his predecessors had the opportunity to have that place in history. Charles G. Dawes served as Vice President under President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge nominated Charles B. Warren to be his attorney general. Although Coolidge’s party controlled the Senate, Warren’s nomination was controversial because of suspected ties to big business.

The nomination came up for vote on March 10, 1925. Both sides knew the vote would be close, so Vice President Dawes was on hand to cast the deciding vote, if needed. Before casting their votes, Senators had the opportunity to debate, and it was expected the debate would go on for some hours. Dawes decided to return to his hotel to take a nap and left instructions to be awakened when it was time for the vote.

Much to Dawes’ surprise, debate came to an end much sooner than expected. With the Vice President soundly asleep a few blocks away, the Senate voted 40-40 on the nomination.

With Dawes nowhere around to cast the deciding vote, the President’s supporters attempted to keep the vote going long enough for the Vice President to return to the chambers. That’s when a conservative Democrat from North Carolina announced that he changed his mind, and he flipped his vote from “aye” to “nay.” Shortly thereafter, Dawes arrived at the Senate, but by this point, it was too late. Without a tie, he had no vote.

By way of a Vice Presidential nap, Charles Dawes left the door open for Vice President Pence to be the first to cast the deciding vote on a cabinet secretary — 92 years later.

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