Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is a regular contributor for CNN Opinion. He is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. Chen previously served as the policy director of the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Georgia voters opted for change, sending challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to Washington, DC, and giving Democrats control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade. Now, the question is, who in Washington benefits most from the electoral result?
The simple answer is that moderate US senators on both sides of the aisle are the new power brokers because President-elect Joe Biden will need to work with them to make policy.
Because control of the Senate will hinge on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Democrats cannot afford to lose any votes in their caucus if they want to confirm Biden’s nominees for judgeships and positions in the executive branch, or if they hope to pass any major legislation. A few moderate Senate Democrats will therefore find themselves in a position to have significant influence.
If past is prologue, the Democrats who may be in a position to exercise the most influence, given their relatively more moderate voting records in recent years, will include Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana. The support of these Democrats will be essential to Biden and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in the same way that the support of moderates has been to passing significant legislation in the past.
One example of this comes from 2010, when Democrats had a much healthier margin in Congress than they have now. Moderate votes were key to passage of the Affordable Care Act. Democratic leaders in Congress and the Obama administration had to grant concessions to moderate Democratic senators in return for their votes in favor of the law.
Terms like the “Florida Flim-Flam,” the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase” were used by observers to describe the provisions necessary to secure the support of moderate Democrats such as Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
But Democrats alone won’t be enough to make progress on Biden’s agenda because most legislation must clear a 60-vote threshold to eventually pass the Senate. This is because current rules require the agreement of a supermajority of senators to end debate before a final vote on passage of most bills can occur. As a result, Biden will also need to cut deals with moderate Republicans to find common ground. And that makes these lawmakers even more influential once Biden takes office.
On the Republican side, it will be a small group of senators generally perceived to be centrists – Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – who must lead the effort to find common ground with Democrats and, perhaps, even to persuade at least a few of their Republican colleagues to support the compromises they strike.
This trio has attracted a disproportionate amount of attention of late. They were closely watched for their positions on votes during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in early 2020 (with Romney the only Republican voting to convict the President), as well as their views on Trump’s nominees for various positions, including his pick of Amy Coney Barrett to be an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. In a deeply polarized Senate, these three have been predictive of whether bipartisan agreement – and therefore legislative action – is possible. Their importance will only be magnified now that Biden must work across partisan lines to get any major lawmaking done.
The power of this group of moderates in the legislative process is not merely theoretical. A few weeks ago, Murkowski, Collins and Romney joined with fellow Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (two other Republicans to watch as we look ahead to the Biden presidency), as well as a number of Democratic senators, including Manchin and Virginia’s Mark Warner, and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, to craft the Covid-19 emergency relief bills that included many of the key provisions that were enacted into law a few weeks ago.
The debate over what should go into a relief package was a seemingly intractable debate that threatened to leave millions of Americans without sorely needed economic benefits. The logjam was broken by a compromise that neither party loved but both could accept.
History has shown that Biden is capable of working across the aisle. He’s the Democrat who Republicans, particularly those in the Senate who knew him during his time there, have been comfortable working with. The most substantial evidence for this view of Biden comes from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president, when congressional Republicans and Obama were loath to deal with one another. Biden was key to negotiations with Republicans such as Collins over the economic stimulus package at the start of Obama’s term in 2009. And he led negotiations with Mitch McConnell to avert a fiscal disaster in late 2012.
Ultimately, if Biden is able to work with moderates in both parties to advance policy reforms premised on areas of agreement rather than on meeting progressive demands, the country will be better for it. Many Americans decry the deeply divisive nature of our politics. The empowerment of moderates resulting from the outcomes in Georgia’s Senate elections may have been just what the doctor ordered when it comes to ensuring that getting things done, rather than advancing a partisan agenda, carries the day.