Democrats didn’t want to repeat the overconfidence of 2016, but they couldn’t help but start to dream: What would be possible if they won not only the presidency but also a healthy Senate majority as well?
They started talking about adding seats to the Supreme Court, abolishing the filibuster and moving forward with big climate change legislation. Activists around the country poured money into Senate races, and candidates were significantly outraising and outspending their Republican Party opponents.
But President-elect Joe Biden will not have the robust Senate majority for which he had no doubt hoped. In fact, he could be the first president since George H.W. Bush to take office without his party controlling both chambers of Congress.
The filibuster will be sticking around, at least for now. And many of those big plans that Democrats had won’t be happening.
“Legislating in the next Congress just got a lot tougher. Among other things, the progressive wishlist from the House is in serious trouble in the Senate,” said Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Control of the Senate remains uncertain, but it could very well remain in Republican hands. Even if Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) does become majority leader, it won’t be with much of a cushion.
Right now, the makeup is split, with four races yet to be called. Democrats picked up two seats, and Republicans picked up one. But Democrats were widely expected to net more. Control of the Senate could have to wait until Jan. 5, when Georgia’s two Senate seats will be determined in runoff races.
“For a President Biden, governing will have a Jekyll and Hyde feel,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide. Like others interviewed for this article, they requested anonymity to speak freely. “On one level, there is a substantial number of steps he can take via executive action. Moreover, a sizable portion of the country will be relieved that the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk is no longer a madman.”
“On another level, legislating will be a real grind,” they added. “If Democrats don’t win the Senate, governing in the Biden era will make the post-tea party years of the Obama administration seem idyllic in comparison.”
Biden already faced enormous challenges in the best of circumstances. He has to tackle a growing pandemic, heal a fractured country and please activists who want him to make big changes to structural problems.
The question now is how he will be able to do any of that with a Democratic-led House and a divided Senate. (Democrats held on to the House, but they appear set to lose ground after expecting to pick up seats.)
“So once this election is finalized and behind us, it will be time for us to do what we have always done as Americans,” Biden said in a speech Wednesday afternoon. “To put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us. ... I know this won’t be easy. I’m not naïve. Neither of us are. I know how deep and hard the opposing views are in our country on so many things. But I also know this as well: To make progress we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.”
Biden has long pitched his ability to work across the aisle as a selling point, saying he believes that GOP lawmakers will be different once Trump is gone. In May, he lamented that “an awful lot of Republicans have become intimidated by the president.”
″The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House ― not a joke ― you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” he added.
It’s not clear if Biden still believes that Republicans will start cooperating with Democrats after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rushed through a conservative replacement on the Supreme Court for liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg a week before the election. That move had nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with longstanding Republican priorities.
“If you think that McConnell’s going to be in a mood to cut deals, you’ve got to get your head examined.”
On Wednesday, McConnell said he was “not troubled at all” by the president prematurely declaring reelection victory when millions of votes had yet to be counted.
Another Democratic Senate aide said McConnell has two options: Obstruct Biden at every step, like he did with Barack Obama, “or work with him a little because they know each other.”
“Count me very skeptical on Option 2,” the aide said.
“I also think they will get a middle ground COVID deal passed, but not a big one that actually makes a difference because, you know, deficits,” they added sarcastically, since the GOP has largely been content to let the deficit balloon under Trump.
On Friday night, Biden said voters had given him “a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change and systemic racism.
But with results more mixed for Democrats down-ballot, it’s likely that Republicans will disagree and refuse to go along with his agenda. On the other hand, the 2022 Senate map is considered more favorable for Democrats, so there might be vulnerable GOP senators willing to play ball.
“Senate Republicans will have to decide if they want to govern or run the Obama-era playbook of obstruction,” said the senior Democratic Senate aide. “The consequences of that decision cannot be understated. If one takes a step back, it’s obvious we’re living in a nation on the brink. The question of what we’re on the brink of if nothing gets done only leads to a very dark place.”
Another Democratic staffer said it was just too soon to tell.
“Maybe Senate Republicans act differently without Trump in the White House, particularly knowing they have another hard cycle in 2022? But do they work together on anything? Infrastructure week, anyone? Do they block everything? Do they want to wash the bad taste out of their mouth?” they wondered.
But without a majority, Biden will need at least some Republican cooperation to get his nominees through the Senate, leading progressives to worry that it could lead to a more centrist Cabinet. A source close to McConnell told Axios that the GOP leader would work with Biden ― but only if his picks are more moderate.
Reid also predicted that Biden would be working with McConnell.
Biden is “a man who is a dealmaker,” the former majority leader said Thursday on MSNBC. “Legislation is the art of compromise. Compromise is not a dirty word, and Joe Biden understands that. I have every confidence that Joe Biden as president of the United States will do everything he can with executive orders, but he’ll also do everything he can to work with Democrats and Republicans.”
There seems to be a fairly universal recognition that Biden is going to need to do what he can with his executive power if he wants to get anything done.
“Biden’s got to use executive orders,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Trump embraced executive orders, even though in 2016 he criticized Obama for using them. He called them “the easy way out” and said if elected president he would “do away with executive orders for the most part.”
Trump ended up issuing 193, compared with 147 for Obama in his first term, 171 for George W. Bush and 128 for Bill Clinton. And, according to The Washington Post, Trump was eager to use them rather than turning to them as a last resort, as most presidents do.
“One of the first things [Biden officials] need to learn is how to use the executive order,” Manley added. “As Trump found out, it’s not the answer to everything. Many of his orders end up in court, but that’s also because many of them were sloppily drafted. If you draft them correctly and go through the process, you can get some wins. I assume that’s what Team Biden is going to have to work at very closely.”
“If you think that McConnell’s going to be in a mood to cut deals,” he added, “you’ve got to get your head examined.”
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.