Race to the Majority: Impacts of the Senate Flip

By Carly Boies, Harrison Getches and Leo Kamin

In the Senate this election season, the results had implications far beyond a normal race. Last December, the state of Georgia decided the fate of Biden’s term, the direction the country would take on social justice and climate issues and the party that would control the government for two more years. The struggle for what is really a zero-seat majority (Vice President Kamala Harris will cast tie-breaking votes for Democrats) revealed how desperate the United States was for political change, but it also showcased the country’s growing political polarization .

Because our government is run by elected officials, it has a certain degree of representation of the general public. There are obvious exceptions, of course, and many of the minorities in the United States are wildly underrepresented in government. However, the general sentiment of the public is often reflected in our government and particularly in the House and the Senate, where there are more elected officials coming into contact with each other.

In regards to this election, looking at the Senate results, it is important to also draw conclusions about the state of the country. After a tumultuous year with COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Protests, natural disasters and eventually a second impeachment attempt in the Presidential office, the partisan divide in the United States became more apparent. Most divisions have always been there, but with everything at a breaking point, it was easier to see the gaping holes in our democracy. As 2020 dragged on, the cracks turned into the chasms of a polarized nation.

The most recent Senate race was a result of this. After six years of Republican control in the chamber, Democrats were desperate to regain their majority. During their time in control, Republicans, most notably their Senate leader Mitch McConnell, refused to compromise or entertain any agreements put forth by opposing political parties. Desperate to regain a foothold in lawmaking, Democrats fought hard for the two Georgia seats that would flip the Senate.

The inability to work across the aisle has become apparent in the Senate during Trump’s term, but it is a reflection of a bigger problem in the country. The general public has been forced to take sides against or for the previous administration, and it pushed the country to extremes. In both the Senate and the country, a wall was put up between opposing political parties and people divided themselves by opinion.

With this divide, we saw a desperate struggle for control of the government. We saw a refusal to agree to a peaceful transition of power–a tradition practiced since the beginning of American history. We saw mobs refusing to accept the credibility of election results infiltrate the capital, and we saw a government so corrupt it could not function. We see the slow deterioration of our country, and it is a dangerous prospect.

The Majority Leader

Since the 2014 midterm elections, perhaps even before that, the Senate has been dominated by one person — Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. As Senate Majority Leader, and before that, the Minority Leader, McConnell pushed the chamber’s rules to their limits — using the filibuster an unprecedented number of times while in the minority, not even allowing floor debates on hundreds of bills passed by the House while in the majority — in his almost totally myopic (and wildly successful) attempt to guarantee conservative control of the federal courts. In fact, 30 percent of all circuit judges have been nominated by Donald Trump in the last 4 years, all getting confirmed by McConnell. Though he will still wield tremendous power as Minority Leader, the era of one-man control in the Senate seems to be over. 

The new Democratic majority will, of course, be led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), but it is unlikely that he will use his powers as Majority Leader to stifle debate to the same extent that McConnell did. Schumer, who for most of his four-decade Congressional career has been considered a pragmatic centrist, says he has moved to the left, a response to the “changing needs” of his constituents

The progressive wing of the party remains critical of Schumer, though, pointing to his close relationship with Wall Street and his staunch support for Israel. Nevertheless, Schumer has come out in support of a number of relatively progressive measures. He has described passing $2,000 stimulus checks as “one of the first things that I want to do” and has not ruled out moving to end the filibuster. “Nothing is off the table,” he said. Still, Schumer is unlikely to champion any of the ambitious policy proposals — like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All — that have come out of his party’s leftmost flank in recent years.

Though progressives have made gains in recent years, with Schumer as majority leader, the Democratic legislative agenda will continue to be firmly controlled by the party’s moderate faction.  

The Vice President

Kamala Harris is an unprecedented Vice President in many ways. She is the first woman, the first Black person, and first South Asian-American to hold the position. But she will also — at least for the next two years — play a critical role in the legislative process. As president of the evenly-split Senate, Harris will be able to cast tie-breaking votes that could push a number measures over the top. According to GovTrack, she was the Senate’s most progressive member in 2019, so she should be a safe vote for all of Democrats’ priorities, from expanded stimulus to gun control. 

The Moderates

One of the most dramatic moments of the Trump era came on Jul. 27, 2017. When it came time to vote on a proposed repeal of parts of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare), an action that then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan described as Republicans’ top priority, lawmakers knew that two moderate Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) would vote against the repeal. To save the ACA, Democrats needed one more vote. Thus the fate of the law — which provides millions of Americans with health insurance — rested on the shoulders of Sen. John McCain, the elderly Republican from Arizona who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer.

McCain slowly made his way to the center of the Senate chamber, held his hand out in the air for what surely seemed like hours, and then gave an emphatic thumbs-down. Gasps rang out throughout the chamber. McCain, who challenged Barack Obama for president in 2008 and was a relatively safe conservative vote for most of his career, had saved Obamacare.

Over the next few years, theatrics like these could become commonplace. More than ever, the spotlight will shine on the Senators in the middle. This is perhaps especially true for the Democrats. In order to pass virtually any part of their legislative agenda or  confirm Biden’s cabinet nominees, Democrats will need every single member of their caucus to fall in line. This means that the party’s most conservative members — like Sen. Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Sen. Jon Tester (Montana),  Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), and Sen. Angus King  (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats — will hold outsized power. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, Sinema and Manchin both voted with Trump around 50 percent of the time. King voted with the former president around 37 percent of the time, and Tester sided with him around 30 percent of the time. All four come from relatively conservative states and are wary of being labeled part of the “radical left.” Crucially, all four generally oppose ending the filibuster, essentially taking that measure off the table for the time being. 

It is not just the moderate Democrats who will find themselves in positions of power, though. A number of relatively liberal Republicans will serve as crucial votes over the next two years. Many of these figures have become well known throughout the Trump era, drawing harsh criticism from the President and, at times, becoming heroes of liberal “resistance.” They include Sen. Murkowski (R Alaska) and Sen. Collins (R Maine, whose votes famously saved Obamacare, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Romney was the only Republican who voted to convict President Trump following his impeachment in 2020. 

Together, the three (and especially Romney, who was the party’s presidential nominee in 2012) represent some of the last vestiges of the pre-Trump Republican party. Democrats will certainly need their votes if they seek to override Republican filibusters of parts of their agenda, efforts that will likely fail. Additionally, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that Murkowski or Collins could allow Democrats to pass bills that Manchin and Sinema oppose. According to GovTrack, Murkowski and Collins actually have more progressive voting records than Manchin and Sinema. 

The Committee Chairs

The Senate is dominated by committees. Upon passing the House, every bill is assigned to a committee through which it must pass to receive a vote or debate from the full Senate. Committees can also play important fact-finding and investigative roles. This means that committee chairs – who control the agenda – have a large amount of power. With the Democrats now in the majority, a new set of senators will be playing key roles across the chamber’s 20 permanent committees. Here are a few of the most consequential ones:

Budget: Bernie Sanders

In what is some Republicans’ worst nightmare, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is widely considered the most progressive senator, will control the Congressional budget. During the Obama administration, many Democrats were skittish when it came to government spending. Sanders has no such reservations. He is a proponent of big government and deficit spending, and he is sure to use his position atop the committee to help pass parts of Biden’s economic plan and continue championing progressive policies.

And crucially, with the chamber split 50-50, Sanders will control the process known as budget reconciliation. The process allows lawmakers to pass parts of their agendas as budget resolutions, rather than regular bills. This means that they cannot be filibustered, passing with a simple majority. The crowning legislative achievements of the last two presidents — Obama’s ACA and Trump’s tax cut — both came through budget reconciliation. 

If Biden wants to make his mark legislatively, he will need to go through Sanders. 

Finance: Ron Wyden

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), rated by GovTrack as one of the most progressive members of the Senate, will control the powerful Finance committee. The committee’s most important responsibility is matters related to taxation. Wyden, who has talked of making the rich “pay their fair share,” is sure to support the kinds of progressive tax increases that Biden has proposed to fund his agenda. He has said that reversing Trump’s 2017 tax cut, which included dropping the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent,  will be one of his first priorities. The cuts added $1.9 trillion to deficits over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Judiciary: Dick Durbin or Sheldon Whitehouse

The Judiciary Committee, which controls the judicial nomination process, is one of the most high-profile committees, often thrust into the spotlight during important confirmation hearings. However, it is still unclear who will serve as the committee’s chair during the next two years, which are sure to include a number of confirmation votes on lower-level appointments and perhaps even a Supreme Court fight if Justice Stephen Breyer decides to step down (as many Democrats are encouraging him to do).

Committee chairmanships are typically decided based purely on seniority — the oldest member of the majority party becomes chair. With 87-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) having recently stepped down after her handling of the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings was widely criticized, Dick Durbin of Illinois — the second-longest-tenured Democrat — is the likely successor. However, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), is apparently also seeking the chairmanship. In the past, Whitehouse has been lauded by progressives for his more aggressive approach to Trump-era confirmation hearings. Thus the fight over the chairmanship has become yet another front in the internal war between the progressive and centrist wings of the party. 

Even though power is shifting hands, in the next few years, the new government has a choice, and that choice will be a reflection of the will of the people. If the Democrats push as much legislation through as possible with their current control of government, they will not be productive in the long run. If anything is learned from the Trump administration it is that the future of politics is never certain and everything can change in an instant.

Our new government is going to need to learn how to listen. We are in desperate need of social change, but nothing can happen if only half of the country agrees with the changes being made. Democrats need to remember what it was like for the four years they were powerless in government. They need to remember the mistakes of the previous administration and how unproductive it is to make decisions with the consent of only one political party.

If the United States is going to make the growth that needs to happen from 2020, it is going to start with compromise. We can no longer run the government by tiny majorities and complete control by one political party. In the end, it will destroy everything, including those who worked so hard to create it. This country can not stand disunited. We have an opportunity now to work towards the ideals the United States should stand for, and if we do not make the effort to change, we never will