Opening day for the Senate won’t be clean break from the old

Senators will be waiting for the results from Georgia to determine the majority

Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden both attended a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden both attended a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 31, 2020 at 3:24pm

For the Senate over the New Year’s holiday weekend, it will be out with the old and in with the new — to a point.

There will be new senators, and a roll call that starts with the letter “B” for the first time since before the first World War, but at least at the start, not much substance will change.

The Senate appears on track to be in session throughout the weekend to finish the leftover business of the 116th Congress, headlined by a vote to override President Donald Trump’s veto of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization and continued sparring about whether to boost COVID-19 aid direct payments to $2,000 per person.

Much of the focus will be hundreds of miles away from the Capitol, however, as senators still have no idea who will be running the chamber in the next Congress. As customary in the Senate, the one-third of the Senate elected or reelected in November will take the oath of office, including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But not on the list will be Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. His first term will expire at noon on Sunday, and whether he returns will be in question until the current runoff elections, where voting closes on Jan. 5, conclude.

Sunday will surely lack some of the usual pomp and circumstance.

Like in the House, the Senate continues to operate with COVID-19 restrictions in place, though senators must come to the chamber in person for votes, so there will be nothing unusual about having so many people on the floor.

What may be missing is the celebratory atmosphere in the Old Senate Chamber, where senators-elect and their spouses would normally be joined by a room full of observers for the ceremonial swearing-in by Vice President Mike Pence, which used to be a favorite event for the new president-elect, Joe Biden, when he was veep.

In normal times there also would be celebrating throughout the Capitol complex with supporters of new senators and a slew of large fundraisers in restaurants not far from the official events.

But there is no legal indoor dining in Washington during the holiday season, thanks to the pandemic, so those gatherings are forbidden.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who won another term and is poised to be either the chairman or ranking member of the Budget Committee once the committee reshuffling takes place, appeared Thursday on the Fox News Channel before making the short trip from his home state to Georgia for a campaign swing for Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and Perdue.

Perdue might be hampered from being on the trail, because his campaign said Thursday that he was quarantining. “This morning, Senator Perdue was notified that he came into close contact with someone on the campaign who tested positive for COVID-19. Both Senator Perdue and his wife tested negative today, but following his doctor's recommendations and in accordance with CDC guidelines, they will quarantine,” the campaign said in a statement.

The Georgia math, with the two Senate seats set to determine control of the chamber, sets up an odd period of suspended animation.

Some committees may hold hearings for Biden’s nominees, with Republican majorities at least until Jan. 20 when Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inaugurated. If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock beat Loeffler and Perdue, that would knot the chamber at 50-50. That would enable Harris, as president of the Senate, to break ties in favor of Democrats and give them the majority.

But the usual discussions about committee ratios may have to wait. Until majority control is determined, the Senate will continue to operate on its current organizing resolution. That is in contrast to the House, where the rules package expires at the end of each session and must be re-upped at the beginning of each new one.

Asked about the budgetary effects of the $2,000 payments, Graham connected it to the politics of the Georgia Senate races.

“If we lose Georgia, this bill is going to seem really cheap,” Graham said. “Because if we lose the Senate, and they have control of the House, the Senate and the White House, they’re going to send over a monster of a bill.”

Graham said he wants standalone votes on all three priorities Trump has recently championed early in the 117th Congress.

“President Trump wants three things: a commission to investigate fraud, $2,000 checks and to repeal Section 230. I’m urging Senator McConnell to give us standalone vote in the new Congress, after January 3, on all three measures, and I would predict that if you had a standalone vote on the $2,000 check, it’s better than 50-50 it would pass,” Graham said.

McConnell has argued that there is not enough time left in the 116th Congress to process those issues, particularly not separately. He did introduce a measure combining the three measures, including the effort to investigate Trump’s allegations of election fraud, the direct payments and the rollback of the telecommunications law provisions often criticized by the president.

The House-passed standalone measure on the increased direct checks has faced opposition from a number of GOP senators, and the 116th Congress would in fact expire before it could get through procedural hurdles if those objections remain.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., insisted Thursday that his caucus would accept votes on all three pieces.

“We’re willing to vote on the other issues that President Trump mentioned — all the issues the Republican Leader says must be addressed — so long as we vote on them separately. That way, $2,000 checks could become law and we could debate all the president’s supposed concerns,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

The start of the year also will feature other action that’s normally just housekeeping: the Jan. 6 joint session to count electoral college votes.

The announcement Wednesday by Sen. Josh Hawley that he will object to Electoral College votes, paired with objectives from several conservative House members, means there will have to be hours of debate on the election results. Hawley, a Missouri Republican, says he wants to use that time to discuss election irregularities as well as the role of big tech companies in America’s electoral process.

Hawley was asked whether his move would make him less popular within the Senate Republican Conference. Senate GOP leadership had sought to avoid the Electoral College objection debate, with potentially uncomfortable votes about the integrity of the electoral process, including from states controlled by Republicans.

“More than I already am?” Hawley said. "I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you off the record. Maybe not off the record. Maybe on background.”

In any case, the objections could lead to a very long day on Thursday, and some Senate Republicans have questioned the wisdom of Hawley’s strategy, even on the record.

“I do not think that he will prevail in his quest,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “I question why he is doing it when the courts have unanimously thrown out the suits that the president's team have filed for lack of credible evidence.”