K Street adjusts for Democratic Senate

Lobbyists say they expect collaboration, even amid intense partisan vitriol

As the incoming Senate majority leader, Charles E. Schumer will have the slimmest majority to work with, making bipartisan collaboration more likely. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
As the incoming Senate majority leader, Charles E. Schumer will have the slimmest majority to work with, making bipartisan collaboration more likely. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 7, 2021 at 8:36am

One day before the November elections, the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck brought on former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Several weeks and two Georgia runoff elections later, the move now looks prescient.

Pryor’s insight into his former colleagues will be in demand, as lobbyists and their clients adjust for a tied Senate where the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will tip the chamber in favor of Democrats.

“The change creates opportunities and also some challenges,” said Pryor, who was elected from Arkansas. “There are going to be opportunities for a lot of bipartisanship in the Senate.”

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Even as partisan vitriol grips Washington, Pryor and other lobbyists say they expect lawmakers to find common ground on additional legislation to mitigate the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures dealing with infrastructure projects as well as potentially on immigration and tax policy.

Democrats will face pressure from their liberal flank to roll back the filibuster rules for legislation, which currently requires 60 votes to clear the chamber. Former Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat who represented Indiana and is now a partner at the lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said he thought the filibuster would remain in place unless Republicans use it “to stop everything.”

Flirting with the filibuster

“If there’s a real effort to legislate and govern, the filibuster is safe,” Donnelly said. If Sen. Mitch McConnell, now poised to become the chamber’s minority leader, uses it regularly, Donnelly said he believes Democrats would at least consider making a change.

With Democrats in charge of the Senate floor, they’ll be able to move more quickly on nominations for the incoming Biden administration, allowing potentially more time to consider legislation.

Donnelly, who lost his Senate seat in the 2018 elections, said $2,000 economic stimulus checks for most Americans would be a first order of business for a Democratic Senate. Other coronavirus relief measures would also be a priority, he and other lobbyists said. “I think there’s an understanding that this is the awful thing that we have to get taken care of as soon as possible,” he said.

Infrastructure and energy policy may also rise to the forefront of the agenda, he predicted, along with health care and technology matters, such as expanding broadband access to urban and rural areas.

Though some lobbyists remain skeptical that major overhauls, such as on immigration, might clear the chamber with bipartisan support, others say they expect at least some movement. Donnelly, for one, worked on unsuccessful bipartisan legislation to give certainty to immigrants who came to the United States as children without documentation. He expects such issues to move in Congress with the prodding of the business sector.

K Street business opportunities

“There will be plenty of opportunities for K Street to assert its influence,” said Democratic lobbyist Jeff Forbes of the firm Forbes Tate.

He noted the extremely slim majorities in both chambers and the interest among some Democrats in doing away with the filibuster rules, though he said it was unlikely the party would have sufficient votes to do away with the 60-vote threshold for legislation.

Lawmakers “will have a big agenda, but everything will be tempered by the numbers,” he said.

Karishma Shah Page, a partner in the public policy and law practice at K&L Gates, said the 50-50 split in the Senate, with Democrats having the tie-breaking advantage, means that lawmakers will potentially use the Congressional Review Act to take a second look at the Trump administration’s regulatory moves.

When it comes to legislation, Page said, “I still am of the mindset that there’s going to continue to be a moderating force.”

Still, much of the agenda for the 117th Congress, at least at the outset, will focus on the coronavirus pandemic and the rebuilding of the nation’s economy, Page said.

She also expects the political uncertainty of the past four years to outlast the Trump era. Clients, she said, will need to remain “prepared” for unforeseen occurrences. “There are significant questions about where and how we work, live and recreate that will have broad-based implications on policy,” she said. “That really creates a lot of opportunity and risk.”

Pryor agrees, as he settles into his new perch.

“The fact that Brownstein is so bipartisan and we have relations all around the House, Senate, White House, and the new administration now, positions us well to manage whatever comes along,” he said. “We’re built in such a way, whatever happens on the Wednesday after the elections, we’re positioned for it.”