The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 — two anniversaries that explain how Democrats approached governing over the past year

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., walks to a vote on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., walks to a vote on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The rightful focus on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol this week overshadowed the anniversary of another significant event that has driven the politics of the past year: Democrats’ surprise win of two Senate seats in Georgia.

Last Jan. 5, Democrats defied the odds and won two runoff races in Georgia that gave them 50 seats and, with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Harris once she was sworn in two weeks later, the slimmest majority possible in the Senate.

The two races were so close that Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) did not give his victory address until after midnight, and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) claimed the 50th seat later the morning of Jan. 6, just a few hours before supporters of Donald Trump ransacked the Capitol.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) held a celebratory news conference claiming the majority leader post before joining the joint congressional session to ratify President Biden’s clear victory.

The elation over those victories quickly morphed into anger, outrage and despair about what happened when Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, knocking the Georgia races off the front pages of newspapers.

Fear, anger and trauma: How the Jan. 6 attack changed Congress

But the two events taken together help explain Democrats’ approach to governing over the past year. The Georgia victories gave them the opportunity to push an agenda while the Jan. 6 attack provided the extra motivation to adopt a go-for-broke attitude and push policies that resemble what the party put into law during the 1930s or 1960s, particularly on voting rights, despite the slim majorities in the House and Senate.

“In a real sense, we stand in this moment between the hopes and idealism of January 5, and the appeal to bigotry and division and fear that we saw on January 6,” Warnock, the first Black senator elected from Georgia, told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. “And the new generation of Americans needs to decide at this moment which way we’re going.”

It’s an understandable reaction, given the assault on democracy, but it has also set Democrats up to keep falling short of the massive expectations they have created.

Over the next five or six days, Schumer will, once again, force a debate on voting rights legislation and other measures Democrats believe will protect elections. These are destined for defeat in the face of a Republican filibuster that will leave the Senate deadlocked at 50-50. He then wants to debate rules changes that would at a minimum carve out voting rights as an issue that does not require the 60-vote supermajority to cut off debate and force a final vote.

But Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been clear they will not support a party-line move to change the rules, preferring that any changes to long-standing precedents come with a bipartisan two-thirds majority under normal Senate rules.

Given their very likely opposition, this game plan sets up a second big disappointment after Manchin’s Dec. 20 declaration that he was opposed to the roughly $2 trillion domestic policy package that already passed the House.

Senior Democrats reject the idea that they got over their skis politically in trying to do so many big things with such a narrow majority.

“No, we’ve been sobered by the reality of a 50-50 Senate and by the reality that, as usual, any senator can stop the train indefinitely. We’ve faced those realities every day. I don’t think there’s been any irrational exuberance,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday.

The expectations game hounds Democrats as they try to deliver their vast agenda

But other Democrats are frustrated by the sense they have underachieved despite having enacted significant policies even if big parts of the agenda remain stalled.

In March, without any GOP support, Democrats approved a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to help advance coronavirus vaccines and prop up the economy, helping fuel a strong economic recovery. And in November, Biden held a bipartisan signing ceremony for a more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill that neither of his two predecessors could clinch.

“So, it sort of bothered me when I see these headlines that said Biden’s legislative agenda stalled or something like that. They got a lot done. Not everything,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), noting his ongoing negotiations with Manchin on voting rights. “But I think in terms of level of accomplishment, given the circumstances, it’s been positive.”

King acknowledged that the Democratic ambition does not meet Democrats’ standing in the House and Senate, where they have almost no votes to spare in either chamber, but he added that majorities are fleeting.

“If you have a Franklin Roosevelt policy agenda, you need Franklin Roosevelt majorities,” King said. “On the other hand, if you have the majority in both houses and the presidency, shame on you if you don’t try to use it for moving forward the agenda that you think’s good for the country.”

That narrow margin for error is historically unusual: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford only four defections from her ranks, which statistically is a smaller margin than one Joe Manchin in the Senate.

The election results in Georgia were also historically unusual, and the results upended what the authors of the state’s historically racist election laws hoped to achieve.

Republicans would have certainly won one of the Senate seats on the normal general election day, Nov. 3, giving them 51 seats and a GOP majority that would have halted Biden’s agenda in its tracks if not for these laws.

But Georgia still uses runoff rules that require a candidate to get more than 50 percent to claim victory, or else the top two recipients advance to a runoff a few weeks after the election. White power brokers instituted this system decades ago to try to block Black candidates from winning elections with a plurality.

The filibuster debate still hasn’t happened in the only place it matters

So, after all the votes were counted in early November, Republican David Perdue had a close-but-comfortable lead of almost 90,000 votes over Ossoff, almost 2 percentage points.

But Perdue fell about 15,000 votes shy of clearing 50 percent, out of almost 5 million ballots cast, sending him and Ossoff into an unusually late runoff, Jan. 5.

The state’s other Senate seat also was contested that year because the popular Johnny Isakson (R) resigned at the end of 2019 because of health issues. A quirky Georgia law set up a massive initial ballot with every candidate to be held on the general election day, leaving the appointed senator, Kelly Loeffler (R), and Warnock fending off other candidates.

Neither was close to 50 percent, but Loeffler and the other GOP candidates received slightly more votes than Warnock and the Democrats.

Both Senate races went on to January, as Republicans held 50 seats and Democrats 48, in a state where Democrats had not won a statewide runoff election in many years.

Then Donald Trump spent the final weeks of presidency consumed with his defeat, falsely accusing election officials of stealing the result in a half-dozen states that flipped to Biden. His most ardent supporters told Georgians to not vote in the runoffs to protest Biden’s victory there on Nov. 3.

Warnock and Ossoff captured Democratic energy as conservatives fought over Trump. Warnock, the senior pastor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, won by almost 100,000 votes over Loeffler. Ossoff won by 55,000 votes over Perdue, a margin of 1.2 percentage points that made it the closest Senate race of the 2020 cycle.

Democrats rejoiced at the majority. “That certainly changed history. It was, I think, largely unexpected,” King said.

Despite some big disappointments so far, those surprise runoff victories enabled major policy victories over the past year.

“We wouldn’t have had the American Rescue Plan,” King said. “We wouldn’t have had as fast a recovery from the pandemic.”

Read more from Paul Kane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.