Georgia Senate Victories to Put Democrats in Unified Control
Following an election on November 3 that defied nearly every norm and many expectations, Democrats won unified control of the federal government after two January 6 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia were called in their favor.
On the same day, an angry mob of rioters allied with President Trump invaded the U.S. Capitol building. The rioters were the first to successfully storm the Capitol since the British did so in 1814 during the War of 1812. Five deaths resulted from the attack. The rioters damaged, stole and destroyed government property, sent Vice President Pence and Members of Congress into hiding, injured dozens, killed a police officer and disrupted the largely ceremonial finalizing of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory with the counting of the Electoral College votes certified by the states.
In the Georgia, runoff Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican appointed to the seat, by 2 percentage points, or over 89,000 votes out of nearly 4.5 million cast. In the second contest, Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Senator David Perdue by 1.5 percentage points or nearly 51,000 votes.
For President-elect Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, the results were a stunning and unexpected boon. The party’s House majority shrank precipitously because of November’s voting. Had Republicans maintained control of the Senate, Biden’s judges and executive branch appointees, who can be approved or rejected by a simple majority vote, could have been blocked and his priorities easily quashed. In addition, Biden’s ambitious agenda for COVID relief, the economy, energy, health care, climate change and more has a chance of passage.
Clearly there is a great deal of change that is now possible thanks to the Georgia elections. The energy industry will not like many of the Biden proposals—regulatory and legislative–but given the narrow margins, there are numerous s ways to influence and improve outcomes. Watch for a dramatic change in government style.
More House-Passed Bills to See Votes in Senate
Since the Republicans took control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, the Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made that body the place where Democratic-sponsored bills passed by the House go to die. That characterization is well-earned. Between January 3, 2019, when the current Congress convened, and election day 2021, the House had passed 431 bills sponsored by Democrats that the Senate never considered. That will change dramatically in 2021.
Ending divided government between the White House and the Congress, at least for the next two years, will have a profound impact on when and how the legislative process moves forward and on which bills are viable candidates to become law or at least receive Senate consideration.
Other than Biden’s defeat of Trump, the Georgia runoff was the most consequential election of the 2020 cycle. Because no candidates garnered over half of the vote in November, Georgia held the January runoffs for both of its U.S. Senate seats, In the end, Warnock, pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, defeated incumbent Kelly Loffler while Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and the son of a Jewish immigrant, defeated incumbent David Purdue.
Democrats winning those two seats was one of the biggest political upsets in American history. Although prelection polls showed close races, Republicans have historically done extremely well in runoff elections, especially in the South. Add to that Georgia’s history as a dark red state, and few expected the Democrats to prevail.
Many commentators credit the outcome to Trump’s erratic behavior since election day. Trump has made vicious attacks on the fairness and reliability of American elections. He has also made numerous personal attacks on Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state. Many believe that Trump’s behavior increased Democratic turnout and depressed the Republican vote just enough to push the elections and the Senate to the Democrats.
Heading into the January 6 vote, the Senate was made up of 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats. Because Democrats won both Georgia races, the Senate is now evenly divided at 50-50. That will change once Kamala Harris becomes vice president on January 20. At that time, she becomes the presiding officer of the Senate, able to break tie votes. Her position ensures that Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) will become the new Majority Leader with the power to determine the Senate’s legislative agenda.
Democrats Senate Power Checked By Filibuster Rule
In the Senate, Biden will still need GOP support. Most legislation needs 60 votes to thwart a Senate filibuster, meaning Biden and Schumer will need Republican support to pass most bills. Exception are presidential nominations and the once-a-year budget reconciliation process, which requires only majority votes. Although limited by the Senate’s arcane rules, the GOP used the reconciliation power in 2017 to pass its controversial tax cuts and President Obama used it to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Within days of his January 20 inauguration, at the behest of President Biden, Congressional Democrats are expected to introduce additional COVID-19 legislation intended to address many issues, including relief for state and local governments, that were not addressed in the December COVID relief package and that will extend the relief provided by the December package well beyond March 2021.
With narrow Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House, the legislative agenda that President Biden pursues is likely to be far less ambitious than the agenda he would have pursued had the “blue wave” election that Democrats sought, and many political handicappers predicted, had occurred.
Biden ran for office pledging to enact the boldest legislative agenda since the Great Depression, passing everything from a massive stimulus to combat the pandemic to trillions of new spending to address infrastructure, climate change, expand health coverage and tackle economic inequality. To accomplish even a portion of that agenda he will have to expertly navigate the closely divided Congress.
Progressives are demanding that Democrats scrap the Senate filibuster, making it easier to pass Biden’s legislative agenda. However, Biden has opposed doing that, and moderate Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) are expected to oppose as well.
Even with the limitations, the incoming president will be positioned to push for a more ambitious spending package aimed at taming the coronavirus pandemic and bolstering the economy, two central themes of his 2020 campaign against President Trump. In addition, he can expect to see his chosen cabinet members confirmed quickly, which will help the new administration to hit the ground running.
Clearly the first 100 days of the Biden administration will be dominated by creating and implementing a message and strategy to address the COVID-19 crisis. If he is successful, there will almost certainly be momentum for other priorities.
Biden will also be issuing a series of executive orders within hours of taking the oath of office to reverse many of Trump’s orders. They are expected to include rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, and to reinstate the program that allows young immigrants known as “Dreamers” to remain and work in the United States.
Climate and Energy Outlook
Biden outlined a $2 trillion proposal to fight climate change. Major climate change legislation will be difficult to achieve. Democrats are divided on the subject, and Biden is unlikely to pick up much, if any, Republican support. Democrats have tried and failed to pass stand-alone climate change legislation when they last controlled unified government. Expect smaller proposals that can ride inside stimulus, infrastructure and appropriations measures. Other energy and environment issues will include more money and support for alternative energy including wind turbines and solar panels, as well as low emissions infrastructure. There is a great deal that Biden can do by
Executive Order, and he is expected to reverse many Trump orders that have loosened climate and energy regulation. For example, expect dramatic limits on drilling on federal lands, including Alaska’s North Slope.
Biden also campaigned on repealing portions of the 2017 tax cuts approved by Republicans during the Trump administration that were aimed at corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Those changes could be on the table if he can resolve debates in his own party about how high rates should be and who should pay more.