Biden Reaps Biggest Georgia Prize: Democrats Running Congress

Police officers aim weapons at a door during a joint session of Congress to count the votes of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6.
Police officers aim weapons at a door during a joint session of Congress to count the votes of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6.

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden won a huge boost with Democrats securing control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins, giving the president-elect a smoother path for advancing his nominees and legislative agenda.

But the wins in two Georgia runoff elections came on a day when rioters backing President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol while members met to certify the Electoral College vote. Lawmakers sheltered under their desks as security officers drew weapons and barricaded the members in the chamber with whatever furniture they could find.

Biden had promised that as a 36-year Senate veteran, he was uniquely qualified to restore bipartisanship to Congress. The narrow Senate majority already was going to put that pledge to a test, but the shocking scenes of political violence on Wednesday -- against the backdrop of Republicans challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s victory -- showed just how much work he has ahead of him.

The incoming Biden administration will need some bipartisanship if it plans to advance an aggressive agenda that includes creating a more robust federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and a new stimulus package. That would be followed by higher taxes on corporations and people who make more than $400,000 a year, along with planned efforts on climate change, infrastructure and racial justice.

50-50

The Senate for at least the first half of Biden’s term will likely remain split 50-50 after Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock beat their Republican opponents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and became the first two Democrats to be elected to the Senate from Georgia in more than 20 years. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be able to cast tie-breaking votes, giving Democrats a tiny majority.

That means Biden most likely gets the cabinet and ambassadorial appointments he wants, given that those require only a simple majority, as well as any future openings on the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. It also likely spares him from any Republican-led subpoenas of the 2020 election results or the business dealings of his son, Hunter.

Biden was already taking advantage of his majority by picking Appellate Court Judge Merrick Garland to be his attorney general, according to people familiar with his thinking. If Garland is confirmed, then Biden gets to nominate his replacement, who can be confirmed by a Democratic Senate. Former President Barack Obama had nominated Garland for a Supreme Court seat in 2016, though Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blocked the nomination.

But the Georgia vote -- seen as a repudiation of Trump’s false claims of election fraud -- will also further embolden progressives, who will push Biden to use the Democratic majority to pass sweeping legislation on economic stimulus, the environment and voting rights.

Progressives’ Agenda

While a unified Democratic government will give progressives tailwinds to push Biden toward the most ambitious elements of his agenda, a one-vote majority in the Senate means they still face limits.

“Democrats need to disabuse them of the thought that a sweep of the two Senate seats in Georgia heralds a new day,” cautions Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “The margin of control would be tenuous.”

It still takes at least 60 votes in the Senate to end debate on most legislation and allow it to go to a vote. Some Democrats have urged the Senate to eliminate the filibuster, allowing bills to pass with a simple majority. Biden has been reluctant to endorse that plan unless Republicans prove “obstreperous” in blocking legislation.

Short of invoking that move, Democrats can turn to a process known as budget reconciliation: For taxing and spending bills, Congress can pass a budget resolution every year with expedited procedures that allow the Senate to vote by simple majority. And because Congress didn’t use that authority last year, it can do so twice this year.

Reconciliation

Presidents Bill Clinton, Obama and Trump all used the reconciliation process to pass the signature bills of their first terms.

To pass any of his priorities, Biden will need to keep a fragile Democratic coalition intact. It’s an increasingly diverse coalition that includes progressives like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and senators from Republican-leaning states like Joe Manchin.

“Democrats from AOC to Joe Manchin, everybody needs to hang together because the margins are going to be so close,” said Casey Dominguez, a political scientist who studies presidential honeymoons with Congress. “And as we get closer to the 2022 midterm elections, everything gets harder.”

By keeping the leadership of Senate committees out of Republican hands, Democrats also deprive them of high-profile hearings to investigate the Biden administration, his family, or his election as president. Instead, House and Senate oversight committees can start or continue their investigations of Trump’s actions while in office or of his federal tax returns.

Contentious Nominations

Even a narrow Democratic majority might not mean all his nominations sail through. Some Democrats have expressed concern about Defense Secretary-designate Lloyd Austin because he retired from the military only four years ago and because of his ties to Raytheon Co., a major contractor.

Trump, with a Republican Senate, was forced to withdraw two of his nominees for Labor and Veterans Affairs, and others were confirmed largely by party-line votes. Five Trump nominations -- including his education secretary, budget director, an ambassador and two judges -- were confirmed only because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence.

In his own eight years as vice president, Biden occasionally presided over the Senate but never cast a tie-breaking vote. Once, after his motorcade raced to Capitol Hill during a close vote, Biden said he was hoping for a deadlock.

“We always win when there’s a tie,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.