The Senate is looming as a roadblock for several of President-elect Joe Biden’s policy priorities as Democrats start to assemble their 2021 agenda.
Biden and congressional leaders pledged to tackle a bold, aggressive slate of legislation when they felt bullish about their chances for a Democratic trifecta for the first time since 2010 and amid fierce pressure from their base to go big after four years of President Trump.
But in a setback, Biden will at best have a 50-50 Senate majority or, more likely, find his party in the minority by a seat or two, a significant hurdle that will test his ability to cut bipartisan deals while making it difficult if not impossible to pass several Democratic priorities for at least two years.
“It’s always better to be in the majority of course, but 50-50 in and of itself is pretty difficult,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s just very difficult to imagine much of anything getting done. Worst-case scenario, the government runs on [continuing resolutions] and a handful of small-bore issues, maybe infrastructure.”
Biden throughout the campaign touted his ability to cut deals with Republicans. During his remarks over the weekend, when he became president-elect, he pledged to unite and heal the country after a divisive four years and historically chaotic presidential fight.
The Senate is likely to test that pledge as soon as his administration hits the ground running, regardless of whether it’s run by a slim GOP majority or a 50-50 tie that lets Vice President-elect Kamala Harris break any ties.
Control of the Senate is boiling down to the two runoff races in Georgia, where Democrats are plotting an uphill battle to try to unseat Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. If Democrats win both they could force a 50-50 tie, otherwise Republicans will hold either 51 or 52 seats depending on the outcomes of the Jan. 5 elections.
But regardless of who wins, Democrats will likely need help from Republicans for most legislation.
While Democrats are under fierce pressure to nix the legislative filibuster if they control the chamber, Democratic aides have warned that a 50-50 split likely takes that off the table for the foreseeable future, since several Democrats are opposed to getting rid of it.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) made it official on Monday night when he said he wanted to put “fears” to rest and vowed that if Democrats find themselves with a 50-50 majority he would not vote to end the legislative filibuster, effectively taking the option off the table for the party.
“50-50 means there’s a tie. But if one senator does not vote on the Democratic side there is no tie,” Manchin said. “When they talk about, whether it be packing the courts or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that. … I will not be the 50th Democrat voting to end that filibuster or to basically stack the court.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who declined to weigh in on the fate of the filibuster, called a tied Senate a “dream come true” for Democrats given the alternative of a GOP majority. But he appeared to acknowledge that it would still be difficult because it was “just 50-50.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a letter to the House Democratic Caucus last week after the elections, vowed House Democrats would pass H.R. 1, a sweeping election and ethics reform bill, and outlined a slew of priorities meant to tout Democrats’ vision for the country in the next Congress.
But leaving the legislative filibuster intact likely means the end of the road for significant Democratic priorities such as election and ethics reforms, climate change legislation and most health care policy as hundreds of House-passed bills have quickly run into a Senate GOP buzz saw in recent years.
Democrats, in the event of a tie, would still be able to confirm nominees or pass some legislation through reconciliation if they can hold their entire caucus together.
Manley noted that regardless of whether it’s a slim GOP majority or a 50-50 Senate, “it’s going to be very tough” for Democrats to get Biden’s legislative agenda through the Senate because “under either scenario it’s far short of 60. And until you get 60 you’ve got a real problem.”
Focus in Washington is already turning to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Biden’s decades-old relationship, including serving in the Senate together and cutting deals during the Obama administration. McConnell declined to comment on his relationship with Biden in Kentucky late last week, but he lavished praise on the former vice president back in late 2016.
“We got results that would not have been possible without a negotiating partner like Joe Biden. Obviously, I don’t always agree with him, but I do trust him,” McConnell said during a floor speech paying tribute to Biden at the time.
But the Senate has shifted substantially since Biden was a member as it’s been buffeted in recent years by rules changes and partisan fights.
Some Democrats are skeptical that McConnell would be willing to cut big deals with a Democratic administration.
“I know they have a good personal relationship, I’ve heard Joe say as much. But remember, this is the same McConnell that declared one-term Obama,” Durbin said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) warned in an interview with WBUR that a GOP-controlled Senate and a Biden administration would spark a “constitutional crisis” because McConnell would force Biden to negotiate his Cabinet.
Senators on both sides of the aisle have signaled that they are open to deals.
Manchin encouraged his Democratic colleagues to shift to the middle next year amid an intense fight, largely in the House, between centrists and progressives.
“We’ve got to govern from that middle, that moderate middle. Joe Biden has always been there. He knows how to work across the aisle. He’ll reach out first and make this Senate work and give it every chance he can,” Manchin said during an interview with CBS News.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close ally of Biden’s, noted that the president-elect believes “all politics is personal” and that he thought Biden could be “successful in getting a surprising amount of support” even if Democrats have a narrow minority.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters during a video conference that he was open to trying to work with Biden in areas like immigration and infrastructure, but warned that Biden would need to break with progressives in his party.
“Does he want to be more like Obama, who rammed through ObamaCare and a stimulus package that was very partisan, or does he want to sit down with people like McConnell and others and me and see if he can find some common ground like infrastructure?” Graham said.
But, in a sign of the headaches awaiting Biden, Graham floated during a Fox News Radio interview on Monday that if Republicans control the Senate they should start a joint committee to probe mail-in voting, a decision that would keep the 2020 presidential election at the forefront for years.
“What I’m going to tell Mitch McConnell today when we get back,” Graham said, “if we keep the Senate, we need to do a joint committee in the Senate to analyze mail-in balloting and how it worked in 2020.”