WASHINGTON — Gov. Charlie Crist says if elected to the U.S. Senate he may not caucus with Democrats or Republicans. "I'll caucus with the people of Florida."
It's true, he would not have to pick a side. But does the Republican-turn-independent Crist really want to follow the example of Wayne Morse?
In 1952 the Oregon lawmaker, disaffected by Dwight D. Eisenhower's platform, became the Senate's lone independent. "I didn't leave the Republican Party," Morse declared. "The Republican Party left me."
Morse showed up at the Senate on opening day 1953 with a metal folding chair and planned to set it up in the center aisle.
Republicans, who held the slimmest of majorities, got him to sit in the front row with them. But Morse would pay. He was bounced from the Armed Services and Labor committees and put on the District of Columbia and Public Works panels. Two years later, Morse joined the Democrats.
Since he started his run for Senate as a "no party affiliation" candidate, Crist has been asked several times with which party he would caucus. Each time, he has ducked with his line about the "people of Florida."
"As a matter of business, you'd have to decide," David Gregory pressed him on Meet the Press.
In a strict sense, Crist would not. All senators are guaranteed two committee assignments regardless of caucus.
In a practical sense, though, he would. Since the parties divvy up the committee seats — and have done so since 1845, back when there were Democrats and Whigs — Crist could end up with less significant committees unless he chooses a side.
The handful of independent senators since Morse have all done so to ensure they get the best assignments. The two current independents, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both caucus with Democrats.
Through committees, lawmakers usually have the greatest control to shape legislation. And committees are also how seniority is accumulated. A chairmanship carries immense power.
"If you're not on one of the caucuses, you could end up with the bottom of the barrel," said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's historian.
Without a caucus, Crist could not vote for Senate leaders or attend weekly strategy lunches.
"As an independent, what do I care?" Crist said in an interview. "It's just not relevant to me."
He is quick to add, "I've got to win this race before any of this is really relevant."
Crist would not rule out joining a caucus but said it would depend on which party he thinks is in the best interest of his state, suggesting a case-by-case process.
"The first order of business is fighting for the people of Florida, not fighting for committee assignments for Charlie Crist," he said.
"They're not going to let him in for one issue then out for another," said Stephen Hess, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution.
Crist is seeking to appeal to Republicans, Democrats and independents, so it's not in his interest to answer more directly — even if the evasiveness is another example of his squishy side.
"For Crist to say anything other than what he said would be politically foolish," Hess said. "He knows the truth, but he's not lying in the sense that he has to make a decision. So why make a decision now? He'll see who the majority party is. He'll see how badly they want him. He'll see what they have to offer."
The governor suggests that committee assignments may be secondary to the power he could hold as a swing vote if the Senate remains closely divided and a major issue related to Florida — say, a national catastrophic insurance fund — arises.
"That's tremendous bargaining power for Florida," he said. "It could be much more important than any single committee I might be on."
Then again, Crist could delve into history again and find another example to follow.
In 1847, Sen. John P. Hale of New Hampshire and the Free Soiler Party refused to join either party caucus and the paltry committee assignments he was offered.
Hale became a major pest, objecting to unanimous consent requests, until he forced the Democrats and Whigs to revert to an old process of electing committee members individually by ballot. A few years later, peace was restored and soon the modern two-party system began.
Note: The account of Wayne Morse and John P. Hale is from "Addresses on the History of the United States Senate" by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.