Democrats’ dream election scenario is still alive

Georgia Senate runoffs offer hope, but full party control will bring its own problems

There is still a chance for Democrats to take control of the Senate and hold all the elective levers of power in Washington. But the shine is off the dream of a change election, Zeller writes. (Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
There is still a chance for Democrats to take control of the Senate and hold all the elective levers of power in Washington. But the shine is off the dream of a change election, Zeller writes. (Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 9, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Expectations shroud election results. That seems never more true than this year when conventional wisdom had it that voters would repudiate Donald Trump by awarding Joe Biden a landslide victory and a Democratic House and Senate to work with. 

That didn’t happen, a testament to the ideological divide that now afflicts American politics. So Democrats hoping for a sweeping mandate to overhaul the institutions of power and to pursue their solutions to big problems are disappointed.

The irony is that they may still get a chance to pursue them. Biden won the presidential election. Democrats retained the House, albeit with several lost seats, and with two Georgia seats headed for a January runoff, there is still a chance for the party to take control of the Senate and hold all the elective levers of power.

Still, the shine is off the dream of a change election. Having won narrowly, having watched their House majority shrink, it will take audaciousness for Democrats to now pursue some of the more far-reaching wishes of their progressive base, from expanding the Supreme Court to eliminating the legislative filibuster to adding Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states. 

Even ambitious legislation — to combat climate change, add a public insurance option to the 2010 health care law and restrict gun sales — looks risky, with a House majority that could be just a handful of seats and a Senate to which Vice President Kamala Harris might have to visit often to cast tiebreaking votes.

At the same time, winning the two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5, which is what it will probably take, could restore that shine just two weeks and a day before Biden’s inauguration. If it happens, this is a debate Democrats will have.

Progressives will make the case that had the party embraced the solutions they offer, the election would not have been as close as it was. Moderates in the Blue Dog Coalition and Democratic senators in red states like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, armed with their majority-making votes, will argue otherwise.

Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate — still expected to be Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer — will have to balance their wishes. “They will have to differentiate between going big and going left. They could go big on COVID relief and all Democrats would love that. They could go big on health care, but it doesn’t need to be Bernie’s plan,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at the center-left Third Way think tank, referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who wants “Medicare for All.”

For Biden, though, there’s an end worse than that of the last Democratic majority, of 2009-2010. Its power was short-lived, but it also left a consequential record, having cut the ranks of those without health insurance and created safeguards to prevent the credit markets from melting down, as they did in 2008.

The greater danger is the fate that awaited Bill Clinton after his triumphant victory in 1992. Then, Clinton put health care atop his agenda and failed to convince a Democratic Congress to pass his bill.

Biden will have to first grapple with the virus. Democratic leaders wanted to wait until after Election Day to pass another round of virus relief. They refused a Senate GOP proposal to spend about $300 billion, believing voters would blame Trump and Senate Republicans for their unwillingness to accept the Democrats’ $2.4 trillion bill.

The current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, says passing virus relief is his top priority when Congress returns to work this month, but it’s unlikely Republicans will raise their offer. And Pelosi may want to wait for the new year, in the hopes that she has Biden and a Democratic Senate to work with.

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If the parties can’t agree during a lame-duck session over the next several weeks, Democrats will need to pass a bill in January, and the $2.4 trillion measure, or perhaps the $3 trillion one the House passed in May, would seem like the first order of business. 

Should the Senate split 50-50, the filibuster will remain an impediment and Democrats will be tempted to lift its 60-vote requirement for most legislation. One institutionalist defection in their ranks and the requirement will remain.

Meanwhile, if all the uncalled House races go to the current leaders, the Democratic majority will sit at 221-214. When the House votes, Pelosi will only be able to lose three Democrats if Republicans are united.

Democrats can pursue two budget reconciliations, for fiscal years 2021 and 2022, and there’s much they could pack into a reconciliation bill,  including COVID-19 relief, infrastructure spending, an expansion of the 2010 health care law and a carbon tax, but one Senate Democrat could sink the whole gambit, as Arizona Sen. John McCain sunk Republicans’ effort to repeal the health care law in 2017.

G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who was director of budget and appropriations for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., expects reconciliation could offer Democrats a chance to increase spending on child care, family leave and unemployment insurance, thereby addressing COVID-19 by pursuing policy goals that preceded the disease.

Looking into the future, it’s easy to see Biden, with his more than four decades of experience in Washington, including six Senate terms, striking the right balance. It’s also easy to foresee him overstepping, given the hunger in his base to implement progressive policies. “Biden is going to have to be very careful,” Hoagland said.

The course of Biden’s presidency hinges on the Georgia runoffs. His job will get a lot harder if Republicans retain Senate control, by keeping the North Carolina seat held by Thom Tillis and the Alaska seat held by Dan Sullivan and winning at least one of the two Georgia Senate seats. Tillis led Cal Cunningham on Nov. 6 by about 100,000 votes but the counting of absentee ballots will continue through Nov. 12. In Alaska, Sullivan leads independent Al Gross by nearly 58,000 votes, but the state has more than 100,000 absentee and other ballots to count, beginning this week. In Georgia, Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler failed to get 50 percent of the vote and will face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, in January.

If the Republicans prevail in the Senate, Democrats will have to compromise on a virus relief measure more in keeping with the bill McConnell offered before the election.

After that, it will take all of Biden’s wiles to convince a GOP Senate emboldened by beating the odds and retaining the majority to compromise with him on legislation. 

They will have to extend expiring legislation. There’s a debt limit expiration coming next summer, and Congress and Biden will need to replenish Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund or risk a cut in payments to doctors and hospitals. 

The GOP assault on big technology companies, from the threat to rewrite the protections those firms now enjoy from liability for the postings of their users to the antitrust case against Google, may win support from some Democrats, who have their own beefs with Silicon Valley.

Rising drug prices and medical bills could give new impetus to legislation to rein them in. Perhaps Biden will pursue an infrastructure deal if the economy continues to struggle in 2021, but he’ll have to find a way to pay for it that works for Republicans.

But the GOP’s inclination will be to aim criticism at Biden’s handling of the coronavirus and to exploit conflicts between progressives and Democratic moderates in preparation for the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden’s presidency, in that scenario, will more likely take a course akin to that of Barack Obama’s after Republicans gained the House majority in 2011, and Biden will have to rely on executive actions and his regulatory agencies to broaden health insurance coverage, to help immigrants and to combat climate change.

The 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, secured with Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation last month, will loom large when legal challenges to Biden’s agenda arise in response.