The Democrats have secured their majority in the Senate for the next two years. But holding onto Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock’s seat in next month’s Georgia runoff could be critical to their success.
If Warnock wins the runoff against Republican Herschel Walker, the Democrats will have 51 seats. That would make legislation much easier than in the current 50-50 Senate, the tightest possible balance of power. For the past two years, Democrats have had to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris — who is the Senate President — to cut ties.
Republicans and Democrats are spending millions of dollars to win the seat in Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff after neither Warnock nor Walker, a famous former soccer player, scored the necessary 50 percent margin for victory on Election Day. Warnock beat Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a 2020 special election and is now fighting for a full six-year term.
A 50-50 Senate “slows everything down,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer in a recent interview. “So it makes a big difference for us.”
A look at what a 51st Senate seat would mean for Democrats:
A 51-49 Senate would give the Democrats an outright majority, meaning Schumer would not have to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The two parties had to do that two years ago and also in 2001, when the Senate was split evenly for the last time.
In early 2021, President Biden’s nominee confirmations were suspended for several weeks while Schumer and McConnell worked out an agreement on how to split committees and move legislation in the Senate. Using what little leverage he had, McConnell threatened not to finalize a deal until Democrats vowed they would not try to kill the legislative filibuster enforcing a 60-vote threshold.
The Republican leader finally relented after two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — made it clear they would not support such a filibuster move.
balance of the committee
The committees are now evenly split between the two parties due to the 50/50 power-sharing deal. This often leads to extra steps when a committee vote is tied, forcing Democrats to vote in the Senate to move forward with bills or candidates.
Should they win a clear 51-seat majority, Democrats would likely hold an extra seat on each committee, making it much easier to move candidates or legislation over party-line votes.
Biden, a longtime senator before becoming president, acknowledged this reality after Democrats won 50 seats and the Senate majority.
“It’s always better at 51 because we’re in a situation where you don’t have to have an even composition of committees,” Biden said. “And that’s why it’s so important. But it’s just better. The bigger the numbers, the better.”
The Joe Manchin problem
The extra seat would also give Democrats the opportunity to pass legislation while losing a vote in their caucus — a luxury they haven’t had for the past two years. Manchin, a moderate from conservative West Virginia, often used the narrow margin to his advantage, forcing Democrats to bow to his will on several bills.
Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s sweeping health, climate and economic package stalled for months until Schumer negotiated a narrower version with the West Virginia senator. In the end, some of Biden’s legislative priorities were left out.
That pressure could increase at the next Congress, as Manchin and Sinema, another moderate MP, are both up for re-election and looking to prove their bipartisan credentials.
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With Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives next year, Democrats will have little chance of passing major legislation. One of Schumer’s top priorities, therefore, will be confirming judges Biden has nominated in the last two years of his tenure.
A rule change under former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a decade ago allowed the Senate to pass judges by just a simple majority, or 51 votes. Winning Warnock’s seat would make this process easier and more expedient.
“We’ve accomplished a lot, but we can accomplish even more with an additional senator,” said Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Free Kamala Harris
The vice president has already broken 26 ties as vice president – twice as many as Mike Pence in his four years in office. Biden has never broken a tie in his eight years as vice president.
The need to break a tie requires Harris to stay close to Washington. A 51st vote would relieve the vice president somewhat and allow her to be out of town when the Senate holds important votes.
In a speech earlier this year, Harris noted that she broke President John Adams’ record for the most tied votes cast in a single term.
“I think we should all fully understand how the story can take a turn,” Harris said.