Georgia keeps Senate agenda in limbo
Uncertainty is hanging over the Senate’s 2021 agenda with control of the chamber up for grabs in Georgia’s runoff elections on Tuesday.
The two races — where GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are trying to fend off Democratic challengers — will determine which party is in the majority for the next two years. The results will also have significant ramifications for the incoming Biden administration.
“We’re having some preliminary meetings, but because of Georgia and the uncertainty of who is controlling the Senate they have to be tentative,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asked about the ability to plan for 2021.
When asked how he was feeling about the party’s chances in the Peach State, Durbin warned that people were being cautious because “no one wants to say anything for fear we’ll go through a Nov. 3 experience where we thought we had such promising prospects.”
In order to win back the majority for the first time since 2014, Democrats will have to unseat both Loeffler and Perdue in order to force a 50-50 tie; otherwise Republicans will hold either 51 or 52 seats for at least the first two years of Biden’s presidency.
Both parties are putting control of the Senate at the heart of the runoff battle.
“We need to make sure Joe Biden can pass his agenda, because if Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, they’re going to try to do to Joe and Kamala just like they tried to do to President Obama,” Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff, who is facing off against Perdue, said during a recent campaign rally.
Republicans, meanwhile, are vowing that if they keep control of the majority they’ll use their leverage to try to force Biden, who came up through the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, to stick to the middle.
“The Georgia Senate races, however, do determine whether or not the Democrats will control the entire government. … Winning in Georgia guarantees that the new president will be a moderate, because he won’t have any choice,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a recent Fox News interview.
Though Biden is likely to need GOP support for most legislation, whichever party is in the majority will get to decide which bills are brought to the floor — an advantage that has been on full display this week as McConnell has blocked legislation to increase $600 stimulus checks to $2,000 — and could make or break some of Biden’s Cabinet picks.
“The majority leader sets the agenda for floor consideration. And even in the circumstances we had this year, if Schumer set the agenda … we would have gotten more done,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), referring to Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The limbo status of the majority after Tuesday trickles all the way down to the breakdown of Senate committees and who serves on them. Cardin, for example, is tasked with working out how Democrats will implement a rules change on subcommittees, which was passed as part of an effort to spread out power in the caucus, but described it as tied up until the Georgia results are in.
“You’re talking about mid-January,” Cardin said. “I don’t know how the committees are going to be able to function.”
The runoffs are also expected to determine whether major Democratic priorities are allowed to come up for a vote in the Senate. With Democrats poised to keep a slim majority in the House, Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could see their legislative priorities pile up in a McConnell-controlled Senate.
Pelosi has said House Democrats will pass big-ticket items like election and ethics reform, climate change legislation and voting rights — all of which would face a buzzsaw in the Senate if Republicans keep their majority.
Democrats and Biden also want to push for a bigger coronavirus relief package early next year, after Trump backed down and signed a $900 billion relief bill in late December.
But Republicans have warned that they aren’t sold on the need for more aid, with McConnell previously saying they would take a look at what the incoming Biden administration requested.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, pointed to the uncertainty of which party will control the majority as a factor in what additional relief clears Congress.
“Probably depends on what happens in Georgia. But even there, you know, it’s gonna take 60 votes to do anything in the Senate,” Thune told reporters when asked about another round of aid.
The consequences could be more dramatic for Biden’s Cabinet picks.
McConnell vowed in a recent interview with former adviser Scott Jennings that he would give Biden’s Cabinet nominees a vote, but warned “they aren’t all going to make it.”
Republicans have already identified two picks who could fail to make it through: Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management and Budget and Xavier Becerra for secretary of Health and Human Services.
Republicans have also publicly warned Biden against picking former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to lead the Justice Department, saying she can’t be confirmed if they keep control of the chamber.
There are questions about how quickly Republicans would confirm Biden’s Cabinet and lower nominations. The chamber is scheduled to be in session for just two days before Biden takes office: Sunday and Wednesday, when the Senate will swear in new members and participate in a joint session to count the Electoral College vote, respectively.
“I think the Republicans are going to have to make a decision as to whether they want to be constructive or they want to be obstructive,” Cardin said.
Asked if he was worried Republicans could slow down Biden’s nominations, Durbin added, “Of course. I hope they don’t.”
There’s also lingering frustration from Republicans about the treatment of President Trump’s nominees. Democrats in 2017 agreed to let only two of Trump’s Cabinet picks be confirmed on day one of his administration, compared with six for then-President Obama and seven for then-President George W. Bush.
By Feb. 10, Trump had seven nominees confirmed, compared with Obama’s 12 and Bush’s 14, which was his entire Cabinet.
Republicans are vowing a high-profile grilling for anyone Biden sends up to Capitol Hill.
“Whoever is it, for whatever office … should be expecting hard vetting from this Senate majority. If we Republicans don’t do that then we’re not doing our job,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
“So, it’s not going to be a garden party,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said during a Fox News interview. “If the Republicans are in the majority, these nominees are going to have to run the gauntlet.”