Georgia certified the election results on Tuesday, confirming the victories of Democratic Senators from Georgia Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the US Senate. Their arrival in the Senate also divides the partisan makeup of the chamber between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, a rift that has only occurred three times before in the country’s history.
Warnock and Ossoff are expected to be sworn in this week after defeating former Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in a pair of dramatic Jan. 5 polls in the southern state of Georgia that determined Senate control . Under the U.S. Constitution, the Vice President, in his constitutional role as Speaker of the Senate, has the power to break a tie-breaker, so Democrats will technically control the chamber when Democratic Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn in on January 20.
While slim Democratic control is good news for new President Joe Biden, it raises many questions about how the Senate will function and perform its most basic functions. The split comes at a time when the country is deeply divided after four years of President Donald Trump and days after a deadly insurgency attempt his supporters waged against the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC on January 6.
Biden’s limited power
A Democratic majority in the Senate will allow Biden and the Democrats to set the political agenda and make it easier to pass limited parts of that agenda, especially when it comes to executive staff appointments and judicial appointments, which only require a majority vote to pass. While Republicans can use filibuster to block most laws, Democrats can pass certain budget items, including limited forms of tax law, infrastructure spending, COVID-19 relief, and reform of the government. health through what is called fiscal reconciliation, which cannot be obstructed.
“It really restricts what Democrats can pursue,” said Joshua C Huder, a senior researcher at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “Democrats are going to thread a very narrow needle.”
But first, before Democrats can pass legislation, the Senate must agree to new rules that govern how the chamber operates under the 50-50 split, a motion that will require a bipartisan agreement. Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, who will be the majority and minority leaders respectively in this divided Senate, are due to meet this week to negotiate the deal.
History as a guide
Fortunately, there is a precedent. The parties divided the Senate evenly in 1881 in what was known as The Great Senate Deadlock, and then again in 1953. The Senate leaders’ most recent response to a 50-50 split in 2001 – which s ‘arose during a time of comparable division in US politics – offers something of a plan.
At the time, Republican President George W. Bush had just been narrowly elected in a contest that many Democrats considered illegitimate. Outgoing Democratic President Bill Clinton had only been removed from office a few years earlier. Republicans controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and, technically, the Senate. Tensions between the parties were high.
Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, the Republican Majority Leader at the time, negotiated a power-sharing deal with Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The compromise, which was carefully crafted behind closed doors, gave Republicans – the majority party – the chairmanship of Senate committees, but gave the committees an equal number of Republicans and Democrats; he allowed bills related to the committee to go to the prosecution; it provided equality of staff and office space; and allowed both sides to propose amendments to the legislation, among other things to allow the chamber to function.
“It was not easy, but we came up with an organizational resolution,” said former Republican Senator from Oklahoma Don Nickles, who in 2001 was the majority whip, the second leadership role behind the leader. of the majority. “We were able to get things done.”
Circumstances forced the party leaders to cooperate. And success relied on open lines of communication between them.
Passing a new organizational resolution in 2021 will also require compromises. Because Senate organizing resolutions can be obstructed, the majority party must make concessions to the minority, a dynamic that will give Republicans clout.
“The minority has a pretty powerful tool with which to negotiate the power-sharing deal,” said Richard Arenberg, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Democratic Senator Carl Levin in 2001. “He doesn’t there is not much of an alternative. The parties have to deal with each other. “
Given the toxicity between Republicans and Democrats, finding that common ground today will not be easy. Years of growing partisanship have eroded relations between party leaders and polarization among grassroots members has increased.
“We are in a very different political world with a different climate and different leaders from 2001,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the polarization of Congress. “Mitch McConnell is not a Trent Lott. There is no understanding or willingness to try to accommodate the other side. McConnell will not do anything that is not in his own best interests and what he sees as the best interests of the party. I don’t see many instances where you are going to have cooperation.
Given the division of the chamber, party unity will be crucial for Biden and the Democrats. Without Republican support for measures that only require a majority vote to pass, Democrats won’t be able to afford a single absence or protest vote from the ranks. This reality will limit the party’s ability to appease its forceful left flank, which is thirsty for legislative victories after years of Republican control. Biden and the Democratic leaders in Congress might find it difficult to meet the high expectations now that they are in power.
“A slim majority is often a curse in disguise,” said Stewart Verdery, who was general counsel under Senator Nickles when Republicans were in an equally precarious situation in 2001. “For Schumer and the rest of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, it’s great that they got the nominal majority, but it also gives the opportunity to be blamed for their failure to win. “
He also puts disproportionate power in the hands of the more conservative members of Democrats, especially Senators Kristen Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin has already broken with Biden and other Democrats by opposing direct payments of $ 2,000 in checks for COVID-19 relief, and he has expressed concern over liberal policy initiatives such as the so-called Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“You could say that Manchin is the king of the Senate at this point,” Arenberg said. “This also applies to Sinema or anyone else who wishes to play an aggressive role on a particular issue. You are going to need the 50 senators.
How long will it last?
The Republican grip on his power in the 50-50 division is just as tenuous. The radical pro-Trump faction of Republicans could oust more moderate lawmakers from the party, upsetting the balance of power and weakening the GOP. Republican Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski recently floated the idea of quitting the party. That would probably make her an independent; she told Alaska Public Radio that she would not join the Democratic Party.
In 2001, after just four months in place, the power-sharing deal was dismantled when Republican Senator from Vermont, Jim Jeffords, left the Republican Party and joined the Democrats, giving them true majority control.
“Since the deal was only in place for four months, it was never really tested as it might have made things last longer with more difficult issues,” Verdery said. “On paper it looked pretty good and it worked well, but it was only in effect for a short time.”
If there were no disruptions, the deal negotiated between Schumer and McConnell this year would last until 2023. Its appearance and operation have yet to be tested.
“There will likely be a power-sharing deal that will be a very lame version of what was produced in 2001,” said Steve Smith, professor of political science at the University of Washington in St. Louis. “It was different times.”