One seat in Senate, but with it comes more control for the Democrats
By Carl Hulse
Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia’s runoff election Tuesday delivered Democrats just one additional seat, but that single layer of padding for their majority will hand them substantially more leeway to control the Senate than they have now.
Warnock’s success gives Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate beginning in January, expanding the bare minimum hold they currently have by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking power in the evenly divided chamber.
“After one year, 10 months and 17 days of the longest 50-50 Senate in history, 51! — a slim majority,” an ebullient Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. the majority leader, said Wednesday as he celebrated both the Warnock victory and the expanded Democratic ranks.
“It just gives us a lift,” he told reporters at the Capitol.
The implications for Senate Democrats and the Biden administration extend well beyond the single Senate slot. With an additional vote, Democrats can take much more operational control of the Senate, easing the confirmation of contentious nominees, clearing the way for investigations and availing themselves of breathing room on a variety of matters.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber and chair of the Judiciary Committee, which would find its work filling judicial vacancies to be much less fraught with a bigger majority.
A larger Democratic contingent will give the party a one-seat advantage on congressional committees that are now evenly split, a situation that allows minority Republicans to maintain significant leverage over legislation and other business. As a result, some administration nominees have stalled in committee, while others have made it out only through a special floor procedure that costs Democrats time. Having an edge on the committees will allow Democrats to overcome Republican opposition, if they can hold together.
“It is good for the efficiency of the Senate,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chair of the Banking Committee, where united Republican opposition held up some of President Joe Biden’s nominees for a time this year. “We can be more nimble, we will be a lot quicker, we will be a little more decisive and that’s good. It doesn’t mean we will pass everything.”
Rules that allow any single senator to block action through a filibuster — and require 60 votes to break it — will still hinder Democrats and require bipartisan efforts to advance bills. And while they are now down a seat, Senate Republicans, again led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will not hesitate to block Democratic efforts — particularly headed into a presidential election cycle.
But with 51 votes, Democrats will have more latitude to maneuver within those limitations. An enlarged majority also dilutes the influence of individual senators such as Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has used his swing-vote status to exert effective veto power over legislation, helping to derail some of the main elements of Biden’s agenda and significantly shaping those that have been achieved. Manchin, however, has said that he would welcome a wider margin because it would take some of the attention and pressure off him as he weighs another run in 2024.
Such a situation would “make it easier for me,” Manchin told reporters last week on Capitol Hill.
Warnock’s win also secured for Democrats the authority to subpoena witnesses before Senate committees without the cooperation of Republicans, which could be hard to come by if the GOP disagrees with the subject of the inquiry or views it as partisan. With House Republicans planning an onslaught of investigations when they assume control in January, the ability of Senate Democrats to mount their own investigations could allow them to counterpunch.
“The subpoena power is going to be very important, especially as the House goes into overdrive on investigations,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “It will provide some check and balance.”
Schumer said expanded investigatory power would provide Democrats an opening to “deal with corporate corruption and inequities and other problems throughout the country.”
Had Warnock lost, Democrats still would have retained control of the Senate, but under the existing 50-50 setup, with its attendant hurdles. That outcome would have doubtless been deflating to Democrats considering how eagerly they have looked forward to a 51-49 split.
Republicans knew what was at stake as well, and Walker sought to make it an issue even after Democrats clinched the Senate majority last month with the victory of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada.
“If I lose this runoff, Democrats will have a 51-seat majority where the most radical proposals will succeed,” a fundraising appeal from Walker said. “We cannot let that happen.”
Republicans said they were sorry to see their power diminished in the Senate, but noted that the narrow Republican majority in the House would deprive Democrats of the ability they now have to control both chambers and use a special budget procedure known as reconciliation to roll over Republicans on tax and spending issues, as they did twice in the past two years.
“I’d much rather have 50-50 than 49-51,” acknowledged Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who noted that the new House majority would be a backstop against reconciliation. “I think the voters kind of like the idea of us being stalemated. Either bad things won’t happen, or if things do happen, it will have to be the old-fashioned way by finding consensus.”
But Democrats were thrilled about their new numbers, impatient for an expanded majority after two years of struggling with evenly divided numbers.
In a body that has experienced frequent absences because of the coronavirus and other medical conditions, the added seat will make everyday scheduling a little less difficult, relieving Democratic leaders of the need to make sure that every senator is on hand for close votes, and sparing Harris the chore of idling nearby in the event she is needed.
The 51st seat also means that Democrats will have an added boost heading into 2024, no small matter when they will be defending seats in Republican-leaning states such as West Virginia, Montana and Ohio.
There are other, less tangible, benefits as well for Democrats, who were considered in serious danger of losing a seat or two, by gaining a seat and tightening their grip on the Senate.
“It gives Democrats in the Senate a kind of bounce in our step that we can build on,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Finance Committee.