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Democrats Claim Senate Majority, Boosting the Biden Agenda

By: Daniel Wachman — Senior Political Correspondent

On Tuesday, January 5th, the 2020 election season ended in Georgia with a big win for the Democratic Party.

Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated incumbent Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in highly competitive tandem Georgia Senate runoff elections. With their double victories in the Peach State, the Democratic Party won control of the United States Senate, succeeding in a key mission for the party after disappointing congressional election results in November.

In the two races, no candidate received the required 50% of the vote in November, so both competitions proceeded to a January 5th runoff. In November, Republicans won fifty seats in the Senate, while Democrats won forty-eight, meaning control of the Senate came down to the two Georgia races. For more details on how Georgia’s runoff elections work, read this article.

Amid Congress’s deliberations over COVID relief and the Trump campaign’s legal war against the presidential election results, the battle for the Senate raged on. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into Georgia, fueling unprecedented organizing campaigns and ad spending. The two candidates in each party campaigned together and brought in many high-profile political figures, including both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, to rally voters.

Ultimately, two months after the general election, Warnock defeated Loeffler by 2.1% and Ossoff defeated Perdue by 1.2%.

Many Democrats credit Stacey Abrams – 2018 gubernatorial candidate, former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and the founder of the voter protection organization Fair Fight – with Georgia’s rapid shift in favor of Democrats. In the last decade, Abrams built a grassroots organizing network across the state that Democrats say helped carry the Biden, Warnock, and Ossoff campaigns to victory.

In a November interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert following Biden’s victory in Georgia, Abrams was asked by Colbert about how she built her organizing network.

“I want to make certain we give credit to so many groups that have been working at this for a very long time,” said Abrams. “My part was that when I became Democratic Leader [of the Georgia House] in 2010, I started building an infrastructure that focused on registration, on recruiting and training staff, on making certain we were in every single county, and I advanced that through multiple cycles…We worked with other organizations…and we had two million voters who understood that their voices were needed, and they showed up.”

In a separate interview with Atlanta’s WSB-TV Channel 2, Abrams added, “I always meet these moments with gratitude for the work done by others, but also with the recognition that this is the beginning of the work we have to do. We’re not done yet.”

Warnock and Ossoff’s victories gave the Democratic Party fifty seats in the Senate, the same number as the Republican Party. As president of the senate, Vice President Kamala Harris will give the Democrats the majority and break ties. 

With Democrats in control, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York has assumed the title of Senate Majority Leader, giving Democrats the power to control the Senate’s agenda. Democrats will also chair most, if not all, Senate committees (a power-sharing agreement to determine party control of committees, a crucial part of an equally split Senate, is still being worked out by Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky).

In his first remarks on the Senate floor as Majority Leader, Schumer expressed his commitment to realizing Biden’s legislative vision.

“We have a lengthy agenda and we need to get it done together,” said Schumer. “President Biden pointed the way to our nation’s recovery and renewal. He reminded us of who we are and where we need to go. But we must now turn the spirit of his words into action…This will be an exceptionally busy and consequential period for the United States Senate. There is much to do, and we are ready to get to work.”

Schumer also echoed central points of Biden’s agenda, specifically noting that the Democratic Senate will look to address the president’s four key issues: COVID-19, its economic impacts, racial inequities, and climate change. He emphasized the urgency of these issues, proclaiming that the Senate will tackle them “head-on and without delay, not with timid solutions, but with boldness and with courage.”

To conclude his remarks, Schumer emphasized one of Biden’s signature talking points: unity.

“To my Republican colleagues,” Schumer said, “when and where we can, the Democratic majority will strive to make this important work bipartisan. The Senate works best when we work together.”

Unity in the Senate may not be as easy as it sounds, however. With a majority that cannot afford to lose a single vote, Biden will have to rally his own party before turning to the GOP. He will then have to overcome deep political divisions to earn support for his agenda, much of which has already drawn significant criticism from Republicans. Though working with a Democratic Congress will be easier for the president than working with a Republican one, his party’s narrow majorities in both chambers will likely constrain his plans.

Senate rules may also become a major headache for Democrats. One specific rule, the “filibuster,” requires sixty votes to end debate on legislation, thereby allowing the minority party to force debate to continue without end and block any vote on the legislation. Although Biden, a thirty-six year veteran of the Senate, has never publicly endorsed the filibuster’s removal, many Democrats have rallied against the rule in recent years.

Opponents of the filibuster say that with the filibuster in place, Biden’s agenda may be dead on arrival, especially given Minority Leader McConnell’s infamously ruthless political tactics. Proponents of the rule, however, say that without it, Democrats would be ramming legislation through the chamber without any Republican support, which would directly contradict President Biden’s message of unity. As of now, several key Senate Democrats oppose removing the filibuster, so the rule is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The fate of this Democratic Congress will be determined in the 2022 midterms. Midterm elections are usually damaging for the party that holds the White House – in 2010, Republicans decimated the Democratic House majority two years after the election of Barack Obama, and in 2018, Democrats did the same to the Republican majority two years after the election of Donald Trump.

However, because only one-third of Senate seats are up for election in a given election cycle, the upper chamber does not necessarily follow the same pattern as the lower – in fact, Republicans increased their Senate majority by two seats in 2018.

Election analysts like Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a prominent election forecaster, say the 2022 election – though still far away – looks to be following a similar pattern, with Republicans favored to claim the House majority and control of the Senate up for grabs, perhaps leaning slightly towards Democrats.

In November, after the Georgia Senate races went to a runoff, Kondik tweeted, “Even if the [Democrats] lose both Georgia seats, they may have a better chance of winning a Senate majority in 2022 than a House majority. That is not to say they would have a great chance at either, though.”

Whether or not these grim prospects for Democrats in 2022 will hold will be very much dependent on what President Biden and the Democratic Congress can achieve in the next two years – on whether or not they can deliver on their promises to the American people.

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