Democrats’ apparent sweep in the Georgia Senate runoffs means they can dust off some of the lofty legislative plans for 2021 they made before the November election, but experts say they should temper their expectations.
Assuming Jon Ossoff’s lead over Sen. David Perdue holds up, Democrats will hold sway over the 50-50 split Senate once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes office Jan. 20 to cast tie-breaking votes in the chamber.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will lead a shrunken Democratic caucus that will have the smallest majority in years.
Those factors mean Democrats will have a narrow path to write legislation that will please a resurgent liberal wing, leave moderates who took the worst losses in the last election mollified, and still be substantive.
“What’s the issue? And then, depending on the issue, the question is whether you’re going to lose Democrats,” said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In the short term, the sweep means another round of economic stimulus to offset the effects of the coronavirus is likely to come sooner and be bigger than otherwise. Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they would expect about $600 billion more in stimulus under a Democratic Congress, for example.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer signaled in a statement on Wednesday that he expected more COVID-19 aid would be coming.
“It feels like a brand new day,” the New York lawmaker said. “For too long, much-needed help has been stalled or diluted by a Republican-led Senate and President Trump. That will change with a Democratic Senate, Democratic House, and a Democratic President.”
Long-term, given the filibuster and a united Republican front, other priorities, like immigration, climate change and infrastructure, will face an uphill climb.
Still, winning the Senate has its perks — Schumer would set the legislative agenda, hold committee hearings and exercise oversight of federal agencies.
“Certainly there are advantages to holding the Senate majority —Democrats would chair Senate committees, set the agenda, and a Democratic Majority Leader could help confirm Biden administration nominees,” wrote Brian Gardner, chief Washington policy strategist for Stifel Nicolaus & Co., in a note.
“However, the difference between a 50-50 Senate and a 51-49 Senate on the ability to pass legislation is small.”
Republicans would still be able to use the filibuster to block major legislation, meaning 60 votes would be needed to move a bill forward and the narrow margin will continually tempt Democratic senators to demand concessions from leadership in return for their vote.
That narrow margin could also incentivize bipartisanship, though. Already, a small bipartisan group of senators, working with a similar group in the House called the Problem Solvers Caucus, played a major role in developing the second big coronavirus aid package. It also called for senators to refrain from challenging the Electoral College results when the votes were presented to Congress.
“The bipartisan group showed in the lame duck that just by demonstrating what is viable at the 60-vote threshold, they can exert significant leverage,” said Liam Donovan, principal with Bracewell LLP’s Policy Resolution Group.
“I don’t think that’s going to be replicable on a regular basis, but if you’re Biden you look to that group as your legislative litmus test, and the GOP rump you can conceivably work with even if the Leader needs convincing.”
Manley was a bit more wary.
“These groups, at least in recent years, don’t have a good track record. They keep getting marginalized in the end,” he said.
One major consequence of a Democratic Senate would be the nominees the Biden administration sends to Capitol Hill for confirmation. Faced with the threat of Democratic filibusters, Senate Republicans during the Trump administration turned to filling the federal judicial ranks with judges they hoped would be friendly to conservative causes.
“A simple majority allows Biden to move his nominees far more quickly, easily, and with a far broader pool of talent to choose from,” Donovan said.
Having the Senate would also allow Democrats to push through some types of legislation with a simple majority, using an optional process called budget reconciliation. While reconciliation bills are filibuster-proof, they are subject to strict requirements on subject matter and budgetary impact.
While reconciliation could be powerful tool — especially if Democrats use it twice in one year, as Republicans did in 2017 — the narrow margins in both chambers mean leaders will have to thread the needle in writing bills. Repealing some of the 2017 tax cuts would meet the rules and have broad Democratic support, for example, while the Green New Deal would likely have a tougher time on both counts.
“It depends on the issue, but in a very narrowly held Senate, I don’t think it’s a given,” Manley said.
Highlighting the potential ideological difficulties, Donovan said reconciliation would allow Democrats to “within the strictures of the process, move anything that Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin can agree on.”