Both Republicans and Democrats agree why the Jan. 5 runoffs for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats are important. But there is far less agreement on how they will be important, with considerable exaggeration from both sides.
Republicans have a 50-48 lead in the new Senate, which means they need to win at least one of the two Georgia races to keep their majority. By contrast, Democrats need both to take control, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris then able to cast the deciding vote to break 50-50 ties.
Maintenance of a GOP majority would at the very least make life difficult for President-elect Joe Biden by giving Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the power to block the new president’s proposals and nominees.
Some Republicans are already saying they may refuse to give even a confirmation hearing to Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget. Biden’s judicial nominees could well face a GOP slowdown.
The key factor is that, because he controls the Senate calendar, the majority leader can decide which bills and nominations reach the full Senate for a vote. McConnell is a major reason that there have been no Senate votes the past six months on the additional COVID-19 relief measures passed by the House.
But it is far less clear what would happen if the two Georgia races restore the majority the Democrats lost six years ago and make Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York the new majority leader.
The two Georgia GOP incumbents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, along with their conservative allies are painting a highly exaggerated picture of what would happen if Democrats add a Senate majority to their control of the White House and the House.
They warn a Democratic majority would end the Senate filibuster that requires 60 votes for most legislation, “pack” the Supreme Court by adding “radical” justices to offset the high court’s conservative majority, make possible the election of up to four more Democratic senators by approving statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, curb Second Amendment gun rights, pass such progressive favorites as the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, and slash spending for the military and law enforcement.
Some liberal Democrats, especially those not in the Senate, have contended that ending the filibuster and adding Supreme Court justices are real possibilities, if they win those two Georgia seats.
In fact, little of that is likely to happen, even in a Democratic Senate.
Not every Democratic senator wants to scrap the 60-vote requirement; some even feel the last Democratic majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, made a mistake in ending it as a requirement for confirming federal district and appeals judges. That opened the way for McConnell to extend the rule to the Supreme Court and enabled President Donald Trump to win confirmation of three conservative justices by narrow partisan votes.
Equally unlikely is enactment of many proposals on the liberal Democratic wish list, like statehood for the nation’s capital, which passed the Democratic-controlled House earlier this year. Biden favors more incremental proposals than the Green New Deal or Medicare-for-all.
A narrow Senate majority won’t even ensure unanimous Democratic support for every Biden nomination for Cabinet posts, lower level federal positions and the judiciary. Inevitably, any president chooses someone who fails to get unanimous support from his own party.
Biden’s proposals to restore higher taxes on corporations and wealthier Americans could also encounter tough going, even in a Democratic Senate. The last time voters elected a Democratic president, McConnell made his infamous vow to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Though he ultimately failed, he did block some Obama proposals and judges, notably Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
Still, a Democratic majority leader would likely ensure Senate votes on just about all of Biden’s nominees and most of his major legislative proposals.
That would open the way for the kind of bipartisan support that Biden said he hopes to attract but McConnell has been able to prevent by blocking Senate consideration of Democratic proposals, like the additional economic stimulus legislation.
Perhaps the most significant impact of a Democratic Senate majority, along with its continuing majority in the House, would be to allow use of the reconciliation procedures of the congressional budgetary process. That would be the easiest way to pass a major economic package that modifies Trump’s 2017 tax cut law and includes long overdue spending to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Both parties have in the past enacted important bills — Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act and Trump’s 2017 tax bill, for example — by taking advantage of the fact that reconciliation enables the Senate to substitute a simple majority for the 60-vote requirement that blocks much legislation.
Given Biden’s own centrist proclivities and the fact that any Senate Democratic majority — like the one in the House — would be extremely narrow, even Democratic capture of both Georgia seats won’t bring radical changes in national policy.
Two Democratic victories would make it far more likely that the incoming administration can achieve many of its major legislative goals. By contrast, a GOP victory would make achieving those goals far more difficult.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. Email: [email protected]
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