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Senate Democrats seek 51st vote — and some breathing room — in Georgia runoff

A win by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in next week’s Senate runoff would hand Democrats a crucial 51st vote in the upper chamber, along with something else they’ve been seeking: breathing room.

Some room to exhale could do wonders for a party that has been forced to navigate the tricky waters of a 50-50 Senate. No longer could a single Democratic member — including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — derail a contentious nominee or long-sought legislative item, handing Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) a boost in the process. 

“It’s night and day,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill. “Being able to lose one is 100 times better than not being able to lose one.” 

A win for Warnock, coupled with Republicans retaking the House, would serve as a one-two punch that would drastically reduce the pressure on and influence of both Manchin and Sinema, the two foremost moderates in the Senate Democratic caucus.

In addition to being able to lose a Democratic vote on legislation, reconciliation bills, which require only 50 votes and have been the center of Democrats’ hopes for major legislation and frustration with Manchin and Sinema, would no longer be possible with the House in GOP hands, nor would passing bills simply by getting rid of the legislative filibuster.

“There’s pressure on everybody, but the focus on any one or two members dramatically reduces, which makes Schumer’s job so much easier,” Kaine added.  

“It means all the difference in the world,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) added. 

Of all the Senate Democrats, perhaps no one claims to be happier about a possible Warnock victory than Manchin himself. The West Virginia moderate, along with Sinema, is also up for reelection in 2024, raising the stakes on the next two years for him personally as he seeks to appeal to both Democrats broadly and more conservative voters in his home state.

“I wouldn’t wish 50-50 on anybody,” Manchin told The Hill.

Democrats appear to be in the driver’s seat heading into Tuesday’s runoff. Warnock topped Republican Herschel Walker by more than 36,000 votes on Election Day. According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of surveys, Warnock leads by 3.2 percentage points over the former University of Georgia running back.

A 51st Senate Democrat would also be a godsend on the committee level. Gone would be the power-sharing agreement between the two parties that has forced a time-consuming process just to bring some nominees to the Senate floor for votes. Once again, the party in power will be able to pass partisan nominees without the minority side having the opportunity to gum up the works. 

“It’s an extra seat on committees. It makes things flow better,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “On committees like Judiciary, for example, it’ll make a big difference.”

And an extra vote will almost certainly be key simply because absences from the Senate floor, whether for health issues or other reasons, are not uncommon. Over the past two years, Senate Democrats were down at least one vote on a number of occasions, including because of positive COVID-19 results that sidelined members. Two senators — Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — even suffered strokes that temporarily kept them out of action. 

Couple those concerns with possible health issues for older members, and that 51st vote will almost certainly prove crucial during the 118th Congress. 

“It means a huge difference in our ability to operate,” said Van Hollen. “It gives you a little more operating flexibility.” 

An upset win by Walker, however, would not only stymie Democratic hopes for the next two years but also give Republicans a major boost heading into what they believe could be a winning cycle for the party. Of the 33 seats up for reelection, 23 are held by Democrats, including a number in red or purple states that will give the party a prime chance at winning back the upper chamber. 

“Well, we could put this one in the hole for 2024 when we expect to have a pretty good map,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There’s no reason to go backward,”

However, there’s trouble at play for the GOP in the Peach State. On top of his own personal issues, Walker will not have the benefit of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on top of the ticket as he did last month. Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams on Election Day, winning 2.1 million votes — roughly 203,000 more than Walker earned.

Due to Democratic wins in Pennsylvania and Nevada, Walker and Republicans have also been deprived of having the race decide the majority, which the party was counting on as being their biggest get-out-the-vote calling card. 

“Warnock has all the advantages. I think Herschel might even be the favorite if this was to determine the majority. … It’s not going to be close,” one GOP operative told The Hill. “Our people just have no motivation to vote. Herschel Walker and his campaign are not a motivation for people to vote.”

Tags Charles Schumer Georgia Georgia Senate runoff Herschel Walker Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Raphael Warnock Tim Kaine

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