Warnock's win in Georgia gives Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema far less power over Biden's agenda
- Sen. Raphael Warnock kept his seat in Georgia after winning the state's runoff election.
- His victory delivered the Democrats' 51st Senate seat in the 118th Congress.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona's viselike grip on their party's priorities has loosened a bit, thanks to Georgia.
Incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock's victory in the Peach State on Tuesday over retired football player Herschel Walker gives Democrats a true majority in the US Senate.
And while a 51-49 majority is minuscule, it's still better than what Democrats had to deal with over the last two years, when they couldn't afford to lose a single vote if they wanted to get anything done.
"No one senator has a veto," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a memo he sent Tuesday to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "When you have 50 senators, any one senator can say, 'I'm not voting for it unless I get this, this, or this.' With 51, we can go bolder and quicker — to show Americans what Democrats stand for."2022 General Embeds
While a 50-50 landscape gave every senator sway, the most frequent, publicly vocal defectors have been Manchin and Sinema, who refused to gut the 60-vote filibuster required to pass most major legislation. Their refusal doomed President Joe Biden's push to enact sweeping voting-rights legislation and to codify Roe v. Wade and other abortion rights into law, among other things.
In a 51-seat world, Schumer shouldn't have to stress as much about what Sinema or Manchin want "in return for trying to pass the Democratic agenda," said former Senate Democratic leadership aide Jim Manley.
"Hopefully, the Democratic leadership doesn't have to spend all their time worrying about what Sen. Manchin is going to do to try and screw things up," Manley said.
The return of majority rule also means Schumer won't have to waste another January cutting deals with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on how things are going to work as he did in early 2021, Manley said.
Republicans will no longer be able to bottle up Biden administration nominees in committee, and select Democratic committee chairs will again be able to issue subpoenas.
"It may be just a small increase in number, but it's going to make all the difference in the world to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer," Manley said.
Legislative agenda will halt
Manchin and Sinema's influence won't go away completely. Both are likely to stick to their bipartisan bona fides, particularly because they're up for reelection in 2024. They're among the two dozen Democrats up in the next cycle, compared to the 10 seats Republicans will have to defend.
The centrist Democrats haven't changed their position on abolishing the filibuster. Biden, in contrast, has called for a filibuster carve-out specifically to enshrine voting and abortion rights. Both are effectively dead in the next Congress.
But now, as opposed to before, Democrats can afford to lose support from either Manchin or Sinema.
"Joe Manchin is a good person; he really is," Biden said Friday at a reception for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "But Joe has a different view, and he represents a different constituency than most of us do, especially on environmental issues. And the same way with the senator from Arizona."
Still, the logjam will go beyond the two senators. Republicans will hold the US House in the next Congress, so Democrats won't be able to pass major legislation like the hard-fought climate and healthcare bill, formally known as the Inflation Reduction Act, without the other party.
"Expect stalemate out of Washington next year and gridlock on almost every issue," Henrietta Treyz, director of economic policy research at Veda Partners, wrote in her November 28 newsletter predicting the 51-49 Senate split.
She told Insider on Tuesday that while lawmakers might agree they need to legislate on antitrust, cryptocurrency, and social media issues, "they'll find small points of disagreement that will sink any real chance of bipartisanship."
"I think there will be bipartisanship only where there absolutely has to be," Treyz said. "So the debt ceiling and government funding bills are really the only major trains leaving the station for the next two years."
During Biden's first term, the president was able to get bipartisan support for infrastructure bill and gun control. But doing so again could get trickier ahead of the 2024 election, said Doug Heye, a former longtime Republican aide.
"The politics become much more difficult," Heye said. "At this point it's hard to see. You'll hear talk about energy, and you'll hear talk about immigration. But those are things that are difficult to move."
Former President Barack Obama signed bipartisan legislation into law when Democrats didn't hold both chambers. But the legislation, on provisions for medical breakthroughs, passed as he prepared to leave office.
Democrats can still move legislation out of committee and bring it up for a vote. Often, the Senate doesn't vote on bills that are actually intended to become law — but because they want to message their priorities ahead of the 2024 presidential election, or get the opposing party on record about a particular issue.
"This will allow us to set the national agenda on things like minimum wage, child care, the child tax credit, challenging big monopolies, creating more jobs, taking on Big Oil to tackle climate change, ensuring legal contraception, protecting democracy, and so much more," Schumer said in his Tuesday letter to the PCCC.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karinne Jean-Pierre said getting an assault weapons ban passed is a priority for the president, but she wouldn't comment on whether it should be brought to the floor regardless of whether it would gain support. Republicans are likely to unite in opposing such legislation.
Either way, Democrats will be less likely to call in Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes on the Senate floor. The vice president has had to run those types of rescue missions 26 times over the past two years.
Biden is also likely to lean heavily on executive action to enact his agenda.
The risk there, however, is that a future Republican president can more easily reverse his actions. On top of that, many of Biden's executive actions will almost surely get litigated in court just like the one on student loan forgiveness.
"On any issue where he sees it being stuck," Heye said. "We'll see Biden putting pen to paper."
Democrats can confirm nominees, oversee committees
Democrats could still use their authority as committee chairs to expand investigations into the Trump administration, particularly now that former President Donald Trump has made a 2024 White House run official.
They'll also have other advantages. For instance, the party in charge controls the standing committees, in which leaders set hearings agendas, decide which issues to investigate, and select which administration officials or business leaders to haul up to Capitol Hill for questioning.
Under the power sharing agreement that's been in place since 2021, both Republicans and Democrats had the same number of senators serving on each panel. That meant Democrats had to hold extra votes on the Senate floor when committee votes were tied, slowing down their day-to-day work.
Democrats will have an extra vote of wiggle room for Biden's judicial and agency nominees, giving Biden more leeway to tap his top picks, including those that might have been too controversial when facing a more narrow majority.
Last year, Manchin opposed the nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget, joining the blockade of GOP resistance to the longtime political operative, who eventually withdrew from consideration for the post over her tweeting history. She now serves as White House staff secretary, a position that didn't require Senate approval.
And this past March, the West Virginia lawmaker opposed the nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin as a top banking regulator at the Federal Reserve, effectively scuttling the nomination. Later that month, Manchin, Sinema, and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona voted against David Weil's bid to lead the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, which sank the nomination; every GOP senator also opposed the pick.
Federal judges are among the nominees who will be able to move through the confirmation process even faster. Democrats have already confirmed 90 of Biden's nominees as of Tuesday, which may sway the ideological balance of the judiciary given the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, Jean-Pierre said Biden in particular wants to continue to expand the number of Black women nominated to judgeships.
It additionally opens up the possibility of Biden nominating a more liberal Supreme Court justice to the bench, should there be another vacancy.
"It'll make life easier for the Biden administration, no doubt, but you're talking about a 51-seat majority," Heye said. "This is not something that is a runaway majority by any stretch."
December 7, 2022: This story has been updated to include latest remarks from the White House's Wednesday press conference.
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