The changing of the guard took second billing Wednesday to Joe Biden’s ascension to the White House. But with Democrats already in control of the House, the transition in the Senate holds enormous implications for Biden’s ability to staff executive agencies and pass legislation at the dawn of his presidency.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming majority leader, has laid out ambitious goals for the opening weeks of the new Senate, balancing the need to confirm Biden’s most important nominees with the new president’s desire to pass another pandemic relief bill, at a cost of nearly $2 trillion. Meanwhile, Schumer expects to conduct an impeachment trial for former president Donald Trump, who stands accused of fomenting a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.
Rising for the first time as majority leader, Schumer pledged to “do business differently” and to take action to combat racial injustice, economic inequality and climate change.
“This Senate will legislate,” Schumer said, a dig at Republicans who focused on confirming Trump’s nominees. “It will be active, responsive, energetic and bold.”
Schumer called for bipartisanship, asserting that “the Senate works best when we work together.”
But partisan divisions remained deep, and it was unclear until late Wednesday whether the Senate would be able to confirm any of Biden’s nominees by the end of his first day in office, a shift from tradition. Trump won two confirmations on his first day as president, while Barack Obama won six and George W. Bush won seven.
After Schumer spoke, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) agreed to lift his objection to Avril Haines, Biden’s choice to serve as director of national intelligence; the Senate voted to confirm Haines, on a vote of 84 to 10.
However, four other nominees — Janet Yellen for treasury secretary, Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary and Antony Blinken for secretary of state — were left waiting amid procedural hurdles and GOP objections.
Amid the wrangling, the Senate welcomed three new Democrats. Alex Padilla, 47, the former California secretary of state and the son of Mexican immigrants, was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Harris’s term.
Also sworn in were media executive Jon Ossoff, 33, and Baptist minister Raphael Warnock, 51, who defeated Republican incumbents in a Jan. 5 runoff in Georgia that sealed Democratic control of both chambers of Congress. Warnock is the first African American senator in Georgia history.
“Today, America is turning over a new leaf,” Ossoff told reporters. “Georgia has sent a young Jewish man and a Black pastor to represent our state in the U.S. Senate. It’s a sign of generational and epochal change for our state.”
It is also a reflection of the contemporary Democratic coalition, which over the past decade has been increasingly built on a rising number of affluent White voters along with large majorities of the nation’s Black and Latino voters. They join a Democratic caucus intent on delivering early, tangible results for the new president, starting with an improved response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed roughly 400,000 Americans and wreaked economic devastation.
In his inaugural address Wednesday, delivered from a rostrum overrun by violent pro-Trump rioters just two weeks ago, Biden called on Americans — and his former Senate colleagues — to “step up” and confront a “time of testing.”
“We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis,” Biden said, adding: “It’s time for boldness, for there’s so much to do. And this is certain — I promise you we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
Democratic senators leaving the speech said they would meet Biden’s challenge.
“I’m excited about a chance to show America what we can do when we’re in the majority,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
But there are signs of considerable obstacles ahead: Schumer and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the top Republican leader, have yet to agree how the Senate will operate under a 50-50 split. Such an agreement is essential to form committees, set staff budgets and smoothly operate a chamber that handles a vast amount of business by unanimous consent.
McConnell signaled this week that he is looking for assurances from Democrats that they will not abandon the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 senators to agree to end debate and proceed to a final vote.
With the Senate evenly divided and the Democratic majority in the House down to single digits, McConnell hinted that any attempt to steamroll Republicans would invite calamity. “The people intentionally entrusted both political parties with significant power to shape our nation’s direction,” he said. “May we work together to honor that trust.”
Democrats are under pressure from liberal activists to ditch the filibuster to make it easier to pass major planks of Biden’s agenda, from civil rights and climate legislation to spending and tax bills that historically have been the focus of pitched partisan battles.
The last time the Senate was evenly divided, in 2001, the two parties agreed to a far-reaching power-sharing arrangement that kept committees evenly split but otherwise gave the party with the vice presidency — in that case, the GOP — the crucial power to set the agenda. But that was a less partisan era on Capitol Hill, and the filibuster was not under threat as it is now.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said it was prudent for McConnell to insist on assurances given the partisan environment. He noted that Republicans insisted on maintaining the filibuster in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate.
If Democrats seek to eliminate the filibuster, he said, “I think it would be very destructive.”
Other Republicans adopted a more conciliatory tone, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of a clutch of centrist senators who helped negotiate last month’s pandemic relief bill.
“We’re going to have some issues that we just fundamentally disagree with,” Murkowski said. “But, I think, to the president’s words, you can still disagree from a policy perspective and you can do so in ways that are still respectful and allow you to continue to work toward other goals.”
However, the difficulty in securing quick nominations threw a pall over the happy talk on Wednesday. In addition to Haines, Treasury Department pick Janet Yellen is the most likely nominee to be quickly confirmed, according to aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
But securing an immediate vote requires all 100 senators, Republican and Democrat, to agree to expedited procedures.
The delays vexed Democrats, who acknowledged that the late date of the Georgia runoffs had played a role. But they laid greater blame on the unusually bitter transition period since the Nov. 3 election.
“Look, the transition was delayed far too long by President Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories about how he won the election,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a Biden confidant. “There were confirmation hearings for a whole series of [Biden’s] seasoned and capable Cabinet nominees . . . really capable folks. We should be confirming them today.”