What does a whip do in the US Senate?

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WASHINGTON D.C. (KELO) — Sen. John Thune (R-SD) holds a behind-the-scenes job in the U.S. Senate that is responsible for getting things done. It’s a job that many don’t understand, but with it comes immense power. A power that can translate in dollars and opportunity for South Dakota.

The senior Senator from South Dakota is the number two U.S. Senator. Since being elected into this role in Nov. 2018 by his fellow Republican leaders, essentially, he handles the nuts and bolts of legislating.

South Dakotans may notice Thune at events flanked by U.S. Capitol Police (often mistaken for Secret Service), a symbol of the power he holds.

This role is often in the shadows, but the duties of the whip are immense. He is in charge of keeping the members of the Republican caucus in line and mobilizing votes on major issues.

One of his greatest powers is information. Thune sits in almost every important meeting. He has a seat at the table.

SLIDESHOW: Standing in the shadow

Sen. John Thune is often seen standing behind Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in news conferences. He is essentially the assistant majority leader.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, flanked by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., right, speaks to reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, leaves the podium next to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, as members of the Senate Republican leadership speak to the media after their weekly policy luncheon, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Washington. “Everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric,” said McConnell. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, joined by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Sen John Thune, R-S.D., center, speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunches on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, walks with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Republican Conference Chair Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., walks to speak to the media, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, after their weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, flanked by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., right, speaks to reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Keeping the members in line

Thune has to track where the 52 other members of his party are at on every key vote.

C. Lawrence Evans is a professor at College of William and Mary author of “The Whips: Building Party Coalitions in Congress.”

“We’re in a period where there is often a lot of party voting in the House and the Senate, so you look at the outcomes – it can be very partisan, very polarized,” Evans said. “At the time same both parties internally are also divided in a lot of ways. So you have the two challenges coming at you.”

That’s exactly what happened this week.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a $2.7 trillion budget deal. The bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk.

This was a test for Thune, to get the number of votes needed. Some conservative Republicans worried the package is too expensive. In the end, 23 Republicans and five Democrats voted against the bill.

The budget needed 60 votes to pass the Senate. The bill passed 67-28.

In Thursday’s vote, it was Thune’s job to get the votes for the Republicans.

CNN asked Senate leaders, including Thune, on Wednesday if more than half of the Republican senators would vote for the bill.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip, also would not say, an unspoken acknowledgment he expects it to fall short of what was a key goal for Senate GOP leaders and the White House.

“We’re working that issue and we feel confident in the end, we’ll pass the budget,” Thune said.

“I think in the end an issue like this is always going to be a combination of Democrats and Republicans, both sides,” Thune said, when asked what message would be sent if more Republicans vote against the bill than for it. “Whenever you negotiate something like this, both sides have a lot invested in it, so I think both sides will be delivering a significant number of votes.”

It turns out, he did.

What we may not ever know is the work it took to get some key members to vote in order to pass this bill.

In the end, all that matters is that it passed. A win for the president. A win for Thune.


The role originated in parliament with a phrase from fox-hunting.

(Thomas Stringer/Public domain)

The term “whip” comes from fox-hunting. “Whipper-in” is a phrase for the member of the hunting team responsible for keeping the dogs from wandering from the pack.

It’s not a part of the U.S. Constitution, but it’s a role that was since added in the early 1900s. According to the U.S. Senate Historial Office, Thune is the first South Dakota Senator to hold a party whip job in either party.

The only South Dakotan to hold a higher position in Congress, or U.S. Government, than Thune is Fmr. Sen. Tom Daschle. The Democrat served several terms as the minority leader, then became the majority leader from 2001-2003 in the 107th Congress. Daschle ironically lost to Thune in 2004 by 4,508 votes.

“It’s just interesting to me that you do see these small states, in terms of population, often producing members of the leadership and I think there’s an interesting question about why that is,” Evans said.

The benefits for South Dakota

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Having South Dakotans ranking high in Congress has been key to South Dakota over time.

“I do think that probably has helped the state in concrete ways through the years, and there’s no for sure whether Thune will play that kind of role, but I do think that there are things that South Dakota will get that otherwise they may not have gotten,” Evans said.

Thune has to be in the room for the important discussions within his party, he helps develop the strategy and build majorities. He also has to work across the aisle and with the White House.

“It elevates him as a player generally and that translates into concrete things potentially for South Dakota,” Evans said.

He can use that power in getting things done in South Dakota – like a new bridge connecting Fort Pierre to Pierre or Ellsworth Air Force Base getting B-21 bombers.

“Just because he is such a player generally, (whip’s) get a little bit more leverage promoting the interest of constituents and that can range from policies to more concrete things like projects and money for the state,” Evans said.

In Thursday’s Eye on KELOLAND, Don Jorgensen and chief photojournalist Kevin Kjergaard pay a visit to our nation’s capital and follow along with Thune.

Experience a day in the life of the majority whip on KELOLAND News at 10.