The final vote: Sen. Sinema could learn from Montana’s Sen. Hatfield

Evan Barrett

Watching Arizona’s freshman Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema trying to figure out how to vote on President Biden’s budget plan reconciliation bill reminds me of a Montana situation almost 44 years ago with freshman Sen. Paul Hatfield.

In both cases there was an important upcoming vote in which every vote counted. Both Hatfield and Sinema had let themselves become essentially the final necessary vote, breaking a political rule to never let yourself be the final vote because of the disproportionate blame that could be laid at your doorstep.

In 1978 the issue facing Montana Sen. Hatfield was the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, which required votes from 2/3 of the Senate, as all treaties do.

Right now, Senator Sinema faces a “reconciliation” vote on the $3.2 trillion budget plan. A “reconciliation” bill, needs only a majority vote in the US Senate – 50 votes which cause a tie, bringing in the tie-breaking vote of the person presiding over the senate – Vice President Kamala Harris.

With all 50 Republican Senators opposing the bill, all 50 Democrats are needed to vote for it in order to get to Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are the only Democrats not yet committed to that vote.

But veteran Senator Manchin seems to have some purpose in his machinations and most political observers see him as a vote that will be there at the end. Sinema, on the other hand, signals she is completely at sea on the vote. Whether voting for or against the bill, she will be the final vote, as was Hatfield in 1978.

If Paul Hatfield were alive (he passed away in 2000 after a sterling 17-year career as a Federal District Judge), he would long ago have called Senator Sinema and told her not to be the last vote, citing his personal history and his personal freshman mistake.

Paul Hatfield was a respected District Judge in Great Falls, first elected at age 32. In 1976, at 48, he ran for Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, crushing long-time Associate Justice Wesley Castles by a better than 2 to 1 margin. Montana Governor Tom Judge, reelected that year, saw Hatfield as electorally formidable.

Hatfield’s perceived electoral strength came into play with the unexpected death of Montana Senator Lee Metcalf on January 12, 1978. Metcalf was nearing the end of his third Senate term after serving 8 years in the House. Governor Judge faced a decision: who to appoint to replace Metcalf.

The Governor dearly wanted to be a Senator himself. He toyed with stepping down and allowing his Lt. Governor to appoint him Senator, but Montana history said “no.” Back in 1933, three-term Governor John Erickson got himself appointed to the Senate on the death of Thomas Walsh, but the people didn’t like the idea and Erickson ended up third in the primary election a year later.

The Governor could have appointed second term Congressman Max Baucus who was already preparing to run for Metcalf’s seat, as Lee wasn’t going to run for reelection. But the Governor’s relationship to Baucus was shaky, so he looked elsewhere, turning to the supposedly “electorally formidable” Paul Hatfield, just one year into his term as Chief Justice. Hatfield accepted and on January 22 off to DC he went, a true freshman. 

He immediately faced with the Panama Canal Treaty ratification vote. Naively, he let himself become the final vote for ratification on April 18th. Suddenly HE was seen as singularly responsible for passage. Every Montana veterans group excoriated him. Just 6 weeks later Baucus crushed him in the Democratic primary by more than a 3 to 1 margin.

Given Baucus’ margin, the Panama Canal Treaty vote wasn’t the only cause of Hatfield’s defeat, but it certainly hurt Hatfield politically. Had he announced his vote early, he would have avoided becoming the “final” vote, shouldering much of the blame.

Well, that’s the pickle Senator Sinema has put herself in. She’s now effectively the last vote. Though she doesn’t face election for five years, Paul Hatfield would surely tell her being the last vote, for or against, can be a political mistake, leading to political repercussions she could easily avoid.