The Memo: 48 hours that will shape start of Biden presidency

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Joe Biden faces two tests this week that will shape the early days of his presidency.

Senate runoff elections in Georgia take place on Tuesday, while the following day will see Congress tally the Electoral College results from the presidential election.

The first event is more important in practical terms. If Democrats win both seats in Georgia, the Senate would be split 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wielding the deciding vote once she is inaugurated.

The Electoral College is important too, at least in terms of the toxic atmosphere that has enveloped American politics. 

There is no realistic possibility of the election result being overturned. But at least 12 GOP senators, including some with presidential ambitions such as Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), will raise objections to Biden’s win, setting the stage for hours of divisive debate. CNN reported on Thursday that, in the House, at least 140 Republican members were expected to protest Biden’s victory.

Polls already show that most Republican voters are unwilling to accept the election was conducted fairly. They are wrong on the facts, but their recalcitrance poses a problem for Biden as he seeks to repair what he terms the “soul of the nation.”

That problem could be amplified by a bitter debate on Wednesday, by inflammatory tweets from President Trump or by the potential for trouble in street protests that Trump has encouraged.

On Sunday, The Washington Post released a recording of a phone call in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s victory in the state. Harris called the call a “bold abuse of power.”

Taken together, the events of Tuesday and Wednesday have the capacity either to put a tailwind at Biden’s back as he takes power, or to deepen the challenges he faces.

Polling in Georgia has been sparse, but the conventional wisdom is that Democrats face an uphill climb in their efforts to take both seats.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) came within a whisker of reaching the 50 percent margin needed for outright victory over his Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, in November. In the other race, Democratic contender Raphael Warnock got a plurality of votes, but largely because there was a fierce contest for GOP support between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).

Democrats take heart from the fact that Biden carried the state, becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to do so since Bill Clinton in 1992. The party also hopes that its supporters will be motivated by the high stakes. More than three million ballots have been cast during early voting, shattering previous records.

The complicating factor is Trump. On one hand, Republicans worry that his barrage of accusations about the conduct of the presidential election in Georgia could depress turnout on Tuesday among his supporters. 

On the other, election returns in November show that Trump was particularly unpopular in the Atlanta suburbs. Perdue and Loeffler could plausibly benefit from the president’s absence from the ballot on Tuesday.

Democrats know that Biden’s ability to have his Cabinet nominees confirmed, to put judges on the bench and to advance his legislative agenda would be greatly helped if his party were to gain control of the upper chamber.

“It would mean a lot not to have Mitch McConnell as the blocking tackle for getting anything done,” said Lanny Davis, a Democratic strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill. Davis emphasized that McConnell, as Senate majority leader, has expansive powers to block legislation from even coming up for a vote.

If that were to change, Davis asserted, “then a lot of Biden’s program will get passed. There are probably five to 10 Republican senators who would vote with Democrats at least on incremental things.”

Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum are emphasizing similar points in a bid to maximize turnout on Tuesday. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recently blamed McConnell, and his status as Senate majority leader, for the failure so far to facilitate $2,000 COVID-19 relief payments to Americans. 

“The whole reason McConnell can block $2,000 checks to begin w/ is bc he’s Senate Majority leader. He’ll block clean $2k relief as long as GOP run the Senate. GEORGIA can change that!” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter on Dec. 29. “If GA votes Warnock/Ossoff on 1/5, the doors open up for COVID relief.”

But Democrats also acknowledge that even a double-win on Tuesday would not deliver political nirvana. Even in a 50-50 tied Senate, Democratic victory on any vote would depend upon retaining the support of centrist members who have previously been willing to buck the party line, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The final certification of the Electoral College vote can look like a rather abstract sideshow compared to the concrete impact of the results in Georgia.

And some Democrats, like Davis, argue that is exactly how it should be seen.

Referring to the GOP effort to overturn the election’s outcome, he said: “It has no chance — zero, none. Not even the people who are doing it think there is a chance of success. I would say to my fellow Democrats: Ignore this. It should be a big yawn and ‘ridiculing’ is the word I would recommend as the best strategy.”

Others worry that it bespeaks a bigger potential problem for Biden, however — the difficulty in getting any measure of bipartisan cooperation at all. Four years of Trump as president have seen his fiery supporters raised up and more conciliatory GOP voices marginalized within the party.

The effort to overturn the election result will fail. But a sizable swath of the GOP now appears to see its political self-interest lying in opposing Biden and his party as emphatically as possible.

“If you are looking at incentives right now, Republicans have not constructed a world where there are incentives to be honest brokers in a governing scenario,” claimed Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “They just don’t want to do it.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bill Clinton Coronavirus COVID-19 David Perdue Donald Trump Doug Collins Electoral College Georgia Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Hawley Kelly Loeffler Mitch McConnell Ted Cruz

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