We won’t know until the two January 5 runoffs in Georgia which party will control the Senate for the next two years. While we know Democrats will retain control of the House, we also don’t know exactly how much Republicans will chip away from Nancy Pelosi’s margin of control (there are still 15 uncalled races, according to the New York Times), or whether Pelosi will be challenged for her gavel by unhappy Democratic colleagues.
We do know, however, that President-elect Joe Biden is facing a legislative landscape significantly diminished from what he might have faced had optimistic predictions of Democrats flipping the Senate decisively and making significant House gains been validated. Already Democrats are having to ask themselves what if anything they can expect to achieve in the 117th Congress, while Republicans mull whether to return to the scorched-earth obstructionism they displayed the last time a new Democratic president took office or to use their new leverage to produce policy concessions by a conciliatory President Biden.
It does seem they will have that leverage in the Senate no matter what happens in Georgia. If Democrats win both races and produce a 50-50 Senate with Vice-President Kamala Harris breaking ties, it will be enormously valuable to them and to Biden, if only because their party can organize the Senate and control committees and the scheduling of floor action. Perhaps they will be able to confirm executive branch and judicial nominees, at least if they stick to relatively noncontroversial figures. But without filibuster reform, they will face a 60-vote supermajority requirement on most legislation. And despite significant progress in the last year in convincing Senate Democrats to abandon an institutional hostility to filibuster reform, they’re probably not going to get 50 votes for it in a 50-50 Senate, if only because Joe Manchin seems to be drawing a line in the sand opposing filibuster reform.
So even if Democrats sweep the Georgia races, they’ll face the same challenge Republicans had in 2017 when Donald Trump took office with a narrow Senate majority. In their case, they decided to load their most important legislative priorities (notably repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes) onto the budget reconciliation process, a vehicle that can enact certain types on initiatives via a single majority vote. Democrats could do that as well, though (a) their agenda is broader and more complicated than that of Trump and the Republicans when he took office, and (b) the reconciliation process places significant restraints on nonmoney items that can distort the policy content of reconciliation bills. As it was, Trump and Republicans failed to enact their Obamacare-centered bill in the Senate, though it did muscle through a package of tax cuts.
If Democrats do not control the Senate, even that narrow avenue for enacting legislation will likely not be available, and for that matter, even routine confirmation votes could become problematic. Yes, Democrats could try to create a working arrangement with one or two Republican “moderates” like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, but I’m sure Biden will remember the amount of time Democrats squandered in 2009 vainly chasing Republicans around the Senate when the Donkey Party had a big majority of the seats. Even if Collins and Murkowski are amenable, they will likely do so at a high cost and on narrowly defined issues, not anything that would give Democrats reliable control of the chamber. So to get much of anything done legislatively, Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would have to cut major deals with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and it’s not clear Mitch will be interested at all in helping the new administration do anything.
My clear-eyed colleague Jonathan Chait has already envisioned this scenario and suggests Democrats offer high-end tax cuts — the prime directive of the Republican Party past, present, and future — in exchange for some key Biden initiatives. But there could be some serious intraparty resistance to that course of action — in both parties, actually. And this is not the best time in American political history for the pursuit of bipartisan center-out coalitions. Yes, if COVID-19 continues to rage and the economy struggles, some sort of emergency relief and stimulus measure might be possible with a less erratic POTUS at the wheel. But even that is debatable.
In the House, the rules of the road give Pelosi (or any hypothetical successor) the power to pass legislation on simple-majority votes, along with iron control of the floor. So the diminished majority shouldn’t be debilitating. On the other hand, the “centrist” Democrats who have often differed with Pelosi on substance and political strategy will be feeling their oats and might gain some additional influence over caucus policies. Perhaps the bigger issue is how House Democrats envision their role in a situation where the Senate remains gridlocked: Are they the big, bold tribunes of progressive messaging and legislation, offering mostly symbolic “wins,” or serious negotiators for results in a closely divided Capitol?
Inevitably, the 2022 midterms will cast a shadow over Washington early and often, even as the wounds of this somewhat inconclusive election still fester. The Senate landscape looks fairly blue, with 20 Republican seats being up, some of them looking promising: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But as FiveThirtyEight is already telling us, the House could be ripe for a midterm Republican takeover, and in general, the recent history of first-term midterms for newly elected Democratic presidents (viz. the Republican landslides of 1994 and 2010) isn’t promising for Biden’s party.
Democrats shouldn’t look that far down the road, however. They must first give themselves the narrow chance to govern on January 5 in Georgia.