ATLANTA (AP) — Usually it’s a president’s first midterm election that reorders a White House’s political approach and priorities. For President-elect Joe Biden, his most defining congressional election is coming before he takes office.
Two runoffs Tuesday in Georgia will decide which party controls the Senate and, thus, how far the new president can reach legislatively on issues such as the pandemic, health care, taxation, energy and the environment. For a politician who sold himself to Americans as a uniter and a seasoned legislative broker, the Georgia elections will help determine whether he’s able to live up to his billing.
“It’s not that you can’t get anything done in the minority or get everything done in the majority, but having the gavel, having that leadership control can be the difference in success or failure for an administration,” said Jim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, who held his post opposite current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Both Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock must win Tuesday to split the Senate 50-50. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, would provide the tiebreaker needed to determine control.
To be sure, even a closely divided Democratic Senate wouldn’t give Biden everything he wants. Senate rules still require 60 votes to advance most major legislation; for now, there aren’t enough Democrats willing to change that requirement. So, regardless of Georgia’s results, Biden will have to win over Republicans in a Senate where a bipartisan group of more centrist senators stand to see their stock rise.
A Democratic Senate still would clear an easier path for Biden’s nominees to key posts, especially on the federal judiciary, and give Democrats control of committees and much of the floor action. Conversely, a Senate led by McConnell almost certainly would deny Biden major legislative victories, as it did late in President Barack Obama’s tenure, by keeping his agenda from even getting up-or-down votes.
Biden’s team is keenly aware of the stakes. The president-elect will travel to Atlanta on Monday, the eve of the runoffs, to campaign with Ossoff and Warnock for the second time in three weeks. Biden’s campaign aides have helped raise millions to boost the party infrastructure that helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 to carry the state. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will campaign Sunday in Savannah.
In his last visit, Biden called Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler “roadblocks” and urged Georgians “to vote for two United States senators who know how to say the word ‘yes’ and not just ‘no.’”
Congressional makeup shapes any administration, but perhaps even more so for Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, plus eight as Obama’s vice president and top congressional liaison. Biden leaned on that resume to pitch himself to the country as a consensus builder; he also criticized presidents’ increased use of executive action to go around Congress and insisted it would be different in his presidency.
Even some Republicans are hopeful. Michael Steel, once a top adviser to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, a chief Obama foil along with McConnell, blamed Obama’s Capitol Hill troubles on his personal approach to his fellow politicians. Conversely, Steel said, “President-elect Biden is a legislator by avocation, by training, by instinct, by experience in a way that former President Obama was not.”
Steel predicted Biden and McConnell, two former colleagues, can find “common ground” on infrastructure and immigration — policy areas that have stumped multiple administrations. Steel noted a handful of Republican senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Rob Portman of Ohio, could face tough reelection fights in 2022, potentially making them eager to cut deals they could tout in campaigns.
Still, there’s no indication McConnell would allow consideration of other top Biden priorities, most notably a “public option” expansion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which passed without a single Republican vote when Democrats controlled both chambers on Capitol Hill. Biden’s proposed tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans also are likely dead in a GOP Senate.
Biden will need his negotiating skills to navigate the left flank of his own party as well. While progressives say they’ve lowered their expectations of what’s possible — even under a Democratic Senate — they still intend to push Biden.