When the 2020 election finally ended 64 days after Election Day, Democrats pulled out two additional victories, setting up a 50-50 balance in the Senate where Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will cast tie-breaking votes.
The wins for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff unlock much more hope that the Biden administration might not just undo some of the worst actions taken in the Trump era, but actually push progressive reforms over the finish line.
Democrats in the Senate and the House, where their majority is also razor-thin, will still have to contend with more conservative members of their party who are resistant to progressive reforms.
And Democrats will have to deal with the filibuster, which allows a minority of senators to block legislation by stalling unless and until 60 members vote to end debate. That would mean getting 10 Republicans to join them, something hard to imagine in most circumstances these days.
There are a few exceptions to the filibuster, including bills that go through the budget reconciliation process ― a special procedure that makes it possible to pass bills with a simple majority. But there are rules about what can and can’t be in a reconciliation bill and Democrats over the next two years will be limited to three such bills, at most.
The only other way forward would be to end the filibuster, which is a parliamentary rule that the Senate adopted and can easily end. Reforming the filibuster is something Biden signaled last year he could be open to, after historically defending the procedure, but several Democratic senators have said they would oppose that.
Still, progressive reforms in these areas now look a whole lot more possible than they did last week:
Minimum Wage And Labor
A Democratic majority in the Senate could put in play the first minimum wage hike in more than a decade. The federal wage floor of $7.25 per hour has not budged since 2009. With Democrats holding the House, the Senate and the White House, they would have a much stronger hand to pursue an increase as high as $15, though only if they prove willing to nuke the filibuster.
Democratic control of the Senate also makes sweeping labor reform possible through the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The legislation, which the Democratic-controlled House had passed last year, would ramp up penalties for employers who try to break unions, ban anti-union “right to work” laws, and expand workers’ rights to strike and boycott. The measure would be a huge prize for organized labor, but it has drawn fierce opposition from business groups and could struggle to draw the necessary votes from moderate Senate Democrats.
At the very least, a Democratic Senate should allow Biden to more easily reverse many of the labor policies of the Trump era ― not just legislatively through the Congressional Review Act, but by reshaping the National Labor Relations Board, which referees disputes between employers and unions. The Trump picks for that board have made it more difficult for many workers to bargain collectively. If Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is deposed as the Senate’s leader, Biden would have a much easier time installing union-friendly nominees who could undo the previous board’s decisions.
Voting Rights And Campaign Finance
Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and a suite of voting rights and campaign finance and ethics reforms were already at the top of congressional Democrats’ priority list before they won control of the Senate on Tuesday.
Paramount among these is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reform and reauthorize the 1965 voting rights law. The proposed legislation, named after the civil rights hero and former Democratic congressman who died in 2019, would update the VRA in compliance with the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted key parts of the historic law. That decision freed state-level Republicans to enact a raft of voter suppression measures aimed at lowering minority voter turnout. Former President Barack Obama called on the Senate to waive the filibuster in order to pass the revised law in his eulogy for Lewis.
House Democrats also plan to pass the For The People Act, a collection of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reforms, as they did in 2019. The bill would create a system of publicly financed congressional elections, expand campaign finance disclosure provisions, enhance executive branch ethics laws, end partisan gerrymandering, and require states to implement a host of election reforms to make it easier to vote. Other bills like the Protect Our Democracy Act, which aims to prevent future presidents from abusing their power as Donald Trump did, will also get a Senate hearing now.
Biden will have a much, much easier time getting his judicial nominees confirmed with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) leading the Senate Judiciary Committee than he would have with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the helm. Since Trump and McConnell filled almost every open judicial seat that Republicans had prevented Obama from filling, Biden will have to rely on older judges to retire quickly if he is to put his stamp on the federal judiciary.
Trump transformed the Supreme Court with three new justices, the most named by any president since Ronald Reagan. Progressive judicial activist groups wasted no time in calling for liberal Stephen Breyer, the oldest Supreme Court justice at 82, to retire as soon as Biden is inaugurated and make way for a younger progressive justice. Democrats do not want another elderly justice dying at an inopportune time, as happened with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If Breyer does step down, Biden is expected to nominate the first Black female justice, as he promised to do during his presidential campaign.
The Social Safety Net
Outside of their demands for bigger unemployment benefits in coronavirus relief legislation, Democrats have not said much lately about expanding or improving programs for poor people. They’ve mostly played defense against Trump and congressional Republicans’ attempts to cut food and disability benefits, policies that will be relatively easy for them to reverse.
But there have been some big proposals in recent years, like making the child tax credit fully refundable and paid in advance, so low-income parents receive monthly checks instead of having to wait for a refund. Democratic leaders included this proposal in their COVID-19 relief demands late last year.
As for expanding Social Security retirement benefits, party leaders previously declined to give a hearing to such a proposal, though they said nice things about it.
Biden has said he supports a higher corporate tax rate and higher income and payroll taxes on people earning more than $400,000 ― proposals that would partially reverse the tax cuts that Republicans enacted at the end of 2017.
Congressional Democrats also want to reverse some of Trump’s tax cuts, but they’ve muddied the message by mainly insisting they would undo the only major tax hike that Republicans included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Among its various changes, that law capped the federal deductions people can take for what they pay in state and local taxes, which Democrats decried as a tax hike on the middle class even though it mostly affected high-income households.
Climate And A Green New Deal
Zeroing out planet-heating pollution from the world’s second-largest emitter by the middle of the century will require unprecedented changes to the U.S. economy, and Biden will need new legislation to do that.
During their campaigns, neither Warnock nor Ossoff endorsed the “Green New Deal” slogan that progressives use to frame calls for a World War II-style industrial strategy to rapidly decarbonize. But both Georgia Democrats vowed to make climate legislation a top priority, and Warnock, a Baptist reverend, draws on a long history of Black clergy fighting racist policies on pollution.
There will still be pushback from conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a staunch fossil fuel ally who in 2010 ran an ad in which he fired bullets into a copy of the last major climate bill that Congress considered. Manchin, Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) voted against a resolution in March 2019 outlining the core tenets of a Green New Deal. Newly elected Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), a longtime oil and gas booster, could also be a hurdle.
But lawmakers can also embed climate provisions in broader spending packages. Last month, Congress passed a stimulus bill that included billions for clean energy research, extended tax credits for solar and wind power, and ratified a global deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a superheating refrigerant gas. The federal government’s annual budget offers a similar opportunity, as the budget reconciliation process allows lawmakers pushing polarizing provisions to circumvent the filibuster.
The Affordable Care Act ― Biden’s famous “B.F.D.” ― is 11 years old and, for all its success making health care coverage available and more affordable to millions of Americans, it needs work. Biden campaigned on beefing up the law rather than replacing it wholesale with a single-payer “Medicare for All” system. A fully Democratic Congress would provide the new president with an opportunity to fulfill some of his promises.
Even with Republicans out of legislative power, Biden faces a potential crisis in the Supreme Court, which is due to rule later this year on a lawsuit challenging the ACA’s constitutionality. The Republican officials who brought the suit base their argument on the fact that Congress repealed the fines associated with the law’s “individual mandate” in 2017 without repealing the mandate itself. Biden and a Democratic Congress could fix that problem in multiple, simple ways by amending the ACA and rendering the lawsuit moot.
Protecting the ACA is but a preliminary step. Biden’s health care plan would direct additional financial assistance to those who purchase private health insurance on exchanges like HealthCare.gov, and make that coverage and that assistance available to more people. Biden has also proposed establishing a government-run “public option” insurance program that would be available to everyone as an alternative to private coverage, including to low-income adults who live in 12 states that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs under the ACA. And he has called for lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 and allowing the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices with manufacturers, among other policies a Democratic majority makes possible.
Biden has promised to take a number of executive actions to reverse Trump’s immigration policies, but Democratic control of Congress could allow him to resurrect broader immigration reform.
The incoming president supports a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants ― including Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as kids. He’s also pledged to increase the refugee cap and ease restrictions on asylum-seekers.
A number of measures now have a chance of passing the Senate, including the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act (or NO BAN Act), which passed the House last July. It would immediately terminate Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and prohibit future presidents from implementing a similar ban.
Biden promised to renew temporary protected status for people from Venezuela, Guatemala and Hong Kong, among others. The House passed a bill to do that last month, but Republicans in the Senate blocked it. The president-elect has also pledged to work with Congress on other reforms including amending visa programs for permanent workers and expanding protections for domestic violence survivors and undocumented immigrants who report labor violations.
Paid Leave And Childcare
It’s hard to imagine a better moment for Democrats to pass paid family and sick leave, and to do something to improve the state of childcare. The coronavirus pandemic has added a level of urgency to these issues, as paid sick leave would help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and a lack of paid family leave has pushed hundreds of thousands of parents, mainly women, out of the workforce.
Lawmakers like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have raised the issue’s profile in the last few years, and polling shows actual bipartisan support. Biden’s campaign agenda favors 12 weeks of paid family leave and seven days of paid sick leave.
The quickest path forward would be to extend and expand the emergency sick leave and childcare leave provisions passed last year to deal with the pandemic. Republican senators blocked extension of those provisions in December, and they expired on Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, the long-suffering childcare industry has taken a massive hit. But it’s now possible for Congress to pass something visionary like increased childcare funding to ensure, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed, that families don’t have to spend more than 7% of their income on that necessary expense. Biden’s robust caregiving proposals also raise the prospect of higher pay and benefits for childcare workers.
On the higher education front, Biden’s agenda focuses on hiking funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and doubling the value of Pell grants, which help low-income students attend college. Both goals are possible with a simple Senate majority.
Another goal, to expand opportunities for free college, would involve more complex legislation and votes from Republicans, making it less likely. How much action Biden can take on student loan forgiveness is also up for debate, including whether he could do so through executive action. Expanding access to preschool is another area where advocates are hopeful for new, ambitious legislation resembling what Biden proposed as a candidate.
There’s new hope of passing COVID-19 relief measures to send much-needed injections of dollars to state and local governments, K-12 schools and universities. Biden has promised to reopen most schools within his first 100 days in office, an undertaking that would require massive funding. There’s also hope that any stimulus package could include resources to help alleviate students’ learning loss over the last year.