Meanwhile, Wednesday’s takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob vividly illustrated the ongoing rage among many of the president’s supporters, raising questions about whether Congress can return to a semblance of normalcy after an event that Biden said “borders on sedition.”
Still, the change in control of the Senate, with Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff capturing hard-fought runoff elections, theoretically affords Biden a narrow path to enact a more sweeping agenda, since Democrats will control all Senate committees and determine what bills reach the floor.
Most immediately, Biden has promised additional help to struggling families by providing $2,000 relief checks. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is poised to become majority leader, said Tuesday that another round of stimulus checks is “one of the first things we want to do” should Democrats prevail, noting that Warnock and Ossoff “campaigned on them.”
In another quick move potentially reflecting the new landscape, Biden Wednesday planned to name Merrick Garland as attorney general. Biden aides said the Georgia race did not affect that decision, but given Garland’s symbolic role as a Democratic martyr after his nomination to the Supreme Court was torpedoed by Republicans in 2016, his confirmation could have been tougher with the GOP in control.
Other items that may suddenly acquire new life are Biden’s plans to expand the Affordable Care Act, launch a major infrastructure program, fight climate change and reform the criminal justice system.
Still, most bills require 60 Senate votes to pass. Since the Democrats’ wins in Georgia give them a 50-50 split, ties will need to be broken with a vote from Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. So Biden will have to rely on his self-proclaimed talent for compromise to achieve many of his prized goals, especially following Wednesday’s riot and its suggestion that the country’s political passions are not fading anytime soon.
The Democrats’ fortunes could erode in two years, since a president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections, giving Biden a small window for action. Biden appeared to recognize those challenges with a statement Wednesday, saying his determination to pursue bipartisanship had not changed.
“The American people demand action and they want unity,” Biden said before the unrest broke out at the U.S. Capitol. “I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both.” He added, “I’m also just as determined today as I was yesterday to try to work with people in both parties — at the federal, state, and local levels — to get big things done for our nation.”
The new outlook also gives enormous leverage to centrist Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), because losing even one Democratic vote on any major initiative could mean its doom. The more far-reaching actions demanded by liberals — such as ending the filibuster, granting statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C., and expanding the Supreme Court — remain almost certainly out of reach.
“Now, more than ever, we must enter a new era of bipartisanship in Washington,” Manchin said Wednesday. “With tight margins in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans are faced with a decision to either work together to put the priorities of our nation before partisan politics or double down on the dysfunctional tribalism.”
Yet liberals were quick to signal they may not be patient. As the Georgia results became clearer Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser posted a tweet saying simply “#DC Statehood” along with a video of her telling a crowd, “I was born without representation, but I will not die without representation.”
With the change in Senate power, the chamber’s entire agenda is likely to change. The leadership of every committee will automatically shift from a Republican, many of them hostile to Biden, to a far-friendlier Democrat, sidelining such high-profile Biden antagonists as Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Removing the Republican grip on the chamber will also afford Biden the chance to appoint judges — including a replacement for Garland, currently a federal appeals judge, and potentially a Supreme Court vacancy if any justice steps down. And it immediately clears a path for Biden’s Cabinet and White House nominations, many of whom Republicans have been slow to embrace.
Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to head the White House budget office, faces considerable opposition from Republicans, for example, but the new Senate landscape significantly improves her chances.
The news of the likely Georgia results came just hours before Senate Republicans mounted their final major challenge to Biden’s victory, with many formally objecting to the electoral college certification of Biden’s win, an extraordinary move that turned a typically perfunctory ceremony into a fraught debate.
And the final result — Ossoff’s victory — came around the time President Trump issued a video statement to his supporters reiterating the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen and asking them to go home. The Capitol was still occupied by protesters as that news spread.
Biden aides and allies said the Georgia outcome affirmed the wisdom of Biden’s moves as president-elect, choosing to focus on his transition and bread-and-butter issues while avoiding partisan warfare even as Trump has behaved increasingly erratically.
“The American people want action. They also want their leaders to work together in their interests,” said Anita Dunn, a top Biden strategist early Wednesday. “The message from Georgia last night is that is far more what people are looking for.”
Biden has not changed his overarching view that he needs bipartisan support, she added. “In a 50-50 Senate you will not succeed without reaching out to the Republicans,” Dunn said. “But even if it were 51 [seats] or 52, he believes that the American people want both political parties to work together.”
She said Biden plans to continue reaching out to Senate Republicans this week and next to look for places where they can cooperate. Biden has been talking to GOP senators since winning the election in November, though these conversations may take on fresh importance now that his party appears poised to control the chamber.
Dunn declined to say who is on the president-elect’s call list, but said the Biden team would aim to work with different Republican senators on different issues.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said early Wednesday he hopes the Senate can make progress on issues such as China relations, climate change and immigration policy. “We keep talking about those things, and in the last two years we haven’t done very much to address those things,” Romney said.
Dunn, however, took issue with political commentary that she said overstates Biden’s prospects based on the Georgia races. “Yesterday our agenda was dead, and today we can pass anything we want,” she joked. “That pendulum swings pretty wildly.”
The most immediate impact could be an added incentive for Senate Republicans to schedule confirmation hearings for some nominees ahead of Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, since Democrats may ultimately be able to confirm the individuals regardless.
Nominees to positions such as defense secretary are typically fast-tracked so new presidents can have their national security team in place upon taking office, but in this case Biden aides say Republicans appear to be slow-walking the process. The president-elect raised that issue again Wednesday.
“My nominees for critical national security positions at State, Defense, Treasury, and Homeland Security have bipartisan support and have been confirmed by the Senate before,” he said. “They need to be in their jobs as soon as possible after January 20th.”
Biden and the Democrats may now also have a chance to undo recent Trump administrative rules like those loosening environmental regulations, potentially using the Congressional Review Act that Republicans used to great effect four years ago in rolling back Obama administration regulations.
But Biden will face a new challenge in keeping his restive party together without a Republican boogeyman like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will become minority leader if Democrats take both Georgia seats.
Liberal senators like Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may feel emboldened to push Biden to the left, since it will be harder for a Biden White House to cite McConnell’s opposition as a reason to hold back.
An evenly divided Senate also creates an instant high-profile role for Harris, who could be called on regularly to cast tie-breaking votes in the chamber. So far it’s been unclear where Harris would focus her energy.
And there is a final benefit for Biden: With new Democratic leaders of the Senate committees, Republicans’ long-threatened hearings into his son Hunter’s business dealings will likely be derailed.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.