Democrats poised to control Senate, giving Joe Biden upper hand

Potential Georgia sweep would give Biden more opportunities to shape legislative agenda

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are seen in a combination of file photographs as they campaign on election day in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff election, in Marietta and Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 5, 2021. Pictures taken January 5, 2021.  REUTERS/Mike Segar, Brian Snyder

With Democrats on the brink of sweeping both seats in Georgia's special election on Wednesday, the blue party is effectively poised to control the Senate and the White House for the first time in a decade and will have the upper hand in shaping the legislative agenda.

Both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were pulling ahead in the final counts of Georgia’s special election, putting Democrats on the cusp of a Senate majority that they lost in 2014. The balance would mean a 50-50 split of senators for each party, with vice president-elect Kamala Harris becoming the tiebreaking vote for Democrats.

 

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer is already celebrating his party’s majority in the chamber, which would make him majority leader and Mitch McConnell the minority leader for Republicans. “It feels like a brand-new day. For the first time in six years, Democrats will operate a majority in the United States Senate, and that will be very good for the American people,” Mr Schumer said in a statement.

But more specifically for US president-elect Joe Biden, the Georgia win will give him an edge in setting the first-term agenda and forming his Cabinet.

In a divided Washington, a 50-50 split is no mandate for Mr Biden and Ms Harris, but it is enough to have his Cabinet nominees confirmed and build a functioning coalition for the biggest legislative priorities.

Nominees for secretary of defence Lloyd Austin, director of the office of management and budget Neera Tanden and energy secretary Jennifer Granholm are now more likely to sail through Senate confirmation. Mr Biden has not yet named his attorney general, but he now has more leeway in naming someone that appeals to his base, such as former deputy attorney general Sally Yates or former chief judge Merrick Graland, instead of a centrist figure such as former senator Doug Jones. Other nominees such as Anthony Blinken for state, Janet Yellen for treasury and Avril Haines for director of national intelligence may still face tough questioning but will most likely be confirmed.

As the Senate control flips, so too would the chairing of committees. Prominent Senate Democrats such as Jack Reed, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren or Bob Menendez could chair the armed services, senate rules, banking and housing and foreign relations committees.

But most critically for Democrats, the majorities in the House and the Senate will give them a path to set the legislative agenda while taking into account the policy differences and priorities in their diverse coalition. A 50-50 Senate formula will not be enough for Democrats to make wide-ranging shifts on climate change or health care, as the filibuster rule would require 60 votes. It is more likely, however, that the Democrats will be able to pass a coronavirus stimulus, protect the healthcare law signed by Barack Obama in 2010 and increase corporate taxes.

Mr Biden will have to take into account that moderate Democrats in the Senate, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, could align themselves with moderate Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, making it harder for big Democratic legislation to pass the chamber.

On foreign policy, a Democratic Congress grants the Biden administration more leverage in acquiring a foreign mandate to pressure international actors, shape outside military presence and introduce sanctions.

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