The Democratic sweep of Georgia’s Senate seats has ushered in a heady new reality for President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office in two weeks with a mandate to act and the numbers on Capitol Hill to deliver on some of his most ambitious promises.
Freed from the constraints that soon-to-be Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was poised to place on his agenda, Biden now also faces new pressure to act swiftly while keeping his narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate unified – a tricky task that could make or break his presidency in its first year.
The party’s wish list is long and every senator will effectively have veto power on each piece of legislation. But the early hurdles that many in the party were fretting over days ago fell overnight.
With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, Biden will now be able to confirm his Cabinet picks and future judicial nominees on party line votes, overturn rules put in place by agencies run by President Donald Trump’s administration, and begin the work of crafting a major economic stimulus package on the scale desired by Democrats without being forced to negotiate for Republican support.
Instead, the leverage will shift to the left – but only as far as Senate moderates, who make up most of the new majority, allow it to go. The odds that Democrats pass big ticket progressive legislation is only fractionally greater than it was on Monday, with future Majority Leader Chuck Schumer either needing a united conference, or the support of GOP defectors, to make it happen. Liberal gains will likely happen on the margins, but with Biden pushing for a massive Covid relief package out of the gate, those gains could have outsized consequences.
“It is impossible to overstate how important (Tuesday’s) wins are for the Biden presidency. Everything was on the ballot in Georgia – the economy, healthcare, Covid, the courts,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “This means real change won’t be relegated to executive orders. Now, President Biden and Congressional Democrats need to deliver.”
Biden set the stakes during an eleventh hour campaign rally for the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, now Georgia’s Democratic senators-elect, on Monday in Atlanta.
“If you send Jon and the Reverend to Washington,” Biden said, “those $2,000 (stimulus) checks will go out the door, restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now.”
And he cheered the results on Wednesday, saying that “Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message” and that “they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now.”
In a conciliatory note, Biden also emphasized that he was prepared to work with both Democrats and Republicans, naming a range of issues, from the coronavirus fight, to providing relief to struggling families, along with climate change, racial justice and voting rights.
New pressure on Biden and Schumer
But Warnock and Ossoff’s victories will have further reaching effects than the short-term imperative of combating the pandemic and its economic fallout. McConnell will no longer set the legislative agenda. Bills passed out of the House will, at the least, get a look from the Senate. Victory in Georgia will also embolden party progressives to lean harder on leadership to wield their unexpected new power.
“Where as before (winning the Senate majority) we were going to need to put wind in the Democrats’ sails to bring their fight to the American people and pressure Republicans, our work now is much more focused on pushing the Democrats to be bold and seize the possibility that exists in this moment,” said Sunrise Movement political director Evan Weber. “This is a once in a generation opportunity to pass historic legislation to act on the major crises of our time, especially climate change, and we can’t accept half measures.”
For outside groups that worked in Georgia, the wins both validate the time and money they had poured into 2020 races and encourage them that issues they have long organized around could actually be addressed in the first two years of a Biden presidency.
“Winning the presidency took our country back from the brink of fascism. Now, we have the chance to move an agenda that actually changes people’s lives,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a top operative for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The group ran one of the largest voter contact programs in Georgia, a state they considered their flagship electoral challenge.
“The Biden administration has the incredible opportunity to use this resounding Democratic mandate and make good on every campaign promise,” Rocketto added, “but they have to do it on day one and without fear.”
Brian Lemek, the executive director of Brady PAC, the political arm of the oldest gun violence prevention organization, said you “can’t understate the enormity of these two wins in Georgia.”
“While the margins in both the House and the Senate are razor thin,” said Lemek, “they give Biden and Democrats a tremendous upper hand and a real opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that improves the lives of millions of Americans.”
Back in December, during a virtual meeting with constituents in New York City, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a glimpse into what he expected to happen if the party won back the chamber and he was elevated to majority leader.
“Joe Biden, I think, will introduce something similar to the Heroes Act, which is $3.4 trillion and deals with all the issues that you’re talking about,” Schumer said, addressing a question about economic aid to small businesses. “And if I get the majority I will put it on the floor and it will pass. Because it only needs reconciliation, 51 votes.”
With Vice President-elect Harris – who could end up being a fixture on Capitol Hill in the coming months – as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, Schumer has just that. But like Biden, he could also be facing a more difficult job in keeping his conference in lockstep. His majority comes with the finest possible margin and the New Yorker will need to carve out agreement across the party’s ideological lines, from centrist Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
As news of the Georgia victories began to sink in Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats began to discuss their priorities. Most said that a coronavirus relief bill topped the list, specifically one that includes $2,000 checks to many Americans.
Beyond that, however, the next steps are slightly unclear. Action on climate change, structural racism and economic inequality all now seem closer within reach. Biden will likely set the agenda.
“We need to fix a lot of the damage Trump’s done and then there’s pent-up demand for a whole lot of things. What do we do about climate and about racial inequality, about wealth inequality, about structural racism,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a progressive who was sworn-in for his first term on Sunday, said the Senate’s swing toward Democrats, along with the split in the GOP over Trump’s effort to overturn his election defeat, cleared a new, wider path to action.
“Now we can fight amongst ourselves within the Democratic Party and push for the policies that we know the majority of the American people want and need and demand,” Bowman said. “And quite frankly, I’m going to be looking very closely at the Republicans who are not supporting the circus that Trump and some Republicans are trying to create today, because that may present opportunities for collaboration and true bipartisan leadership going forward.”
Republicans face a Trump hangover
On the other side of the aisle, the blame game is in full swing.
For Republicans who worked to control the Senate, the story in Georgia was one that repeated throughout the country: The suburbs rejected Donald Trump’s GOP in 2018 and were a crucial piece of the Democratic coalition in 2020. Biden pulled significant support from one-time Republican strongholds, in part, because of Trump’s erratic behavior and promotion of conspiracy theories.
Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sought to combat the trend by appointing Loeffler to an open seat, believing that she could bring suburban Republicans – specifically women – back home. But Loeffler largely abandoned appeals to moderates and put her lot in with Trump, embracing his language and pledging to join Republicans in their electoral college stunt.
As results became clear early Wednesday morning, a gloom fell over Republicans as the silver linings from the general election – when they picked up seats in the House and appeared to be on track to hold on to the Senate – were stripped away.
“We are waking up to a very different Washington today than we did yesterday,” said Matt Gorman, a longtime Republican operative who previously worked as a top spokesperson at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “This really changes everything for the next two years.”
Gorman acknowledged that Biden now can pick almost anyone he wants for his Cabinet and judicial appointments and that passing major legislative achievements just got a lot easier.
“I don’t think Joe Biden is suddenly going to become Bernie Sanders,” Gorman said, “but not having to go through Mitch McConnell for his agenda absolutely empowers him to go further to the left than he anticipated.”
CNN’s Lauren Fox, Sarah Fortinsky, and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report