Democrats have won the Senate, what now?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

With the Democrats now holding a slim senate majority, Ben O’Leary Fitzpatrick discusses the possibilities of a Biden presidency.

The election of President Joe Biden in November was a celebration for Democrats. After four years of Donald Trump’s controversial presidency, Biden convincingly beat Trump with a 4.5% margin. However, the overarching mood amongst Democrats was that they didn't really 'win' the election, at least not yet. While the Democrats won the Presidency and kept their majority in the House, though losing nine seats, control of the Senate was still up in the air. A quirk in timing meant that along with the regular Senate election (which takes place every 6 years) a special election was called in Georgia to fill Sen. Isakson's seat, who had resigned at the end of 2019 citing health concerns. His Senate seat was filled by Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed by Georgia's Governor until a special election. This meant there were 2 seats up for grabs in Georgia.

The Senate election in November 2020 proved inconclusive as no candidate in both races met the 50% threshold needed for victory. Thus, a special election for January 5th was called. Classically special elections favour Republicans because, in general, Democrats predominantly turn out for Presidential elections. However, Democrats were aided by Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud. Both incumbents, Sen. David Perdue and Sen. Loeffler tied themselves politically to Trump, which arguably contributed to their eventual losses. A divided nation and high voter turnout in predominantly urban areas meant that the Democrats did what many considered unimaginable and won both seats. In fact, Senator Jon Ossoff won by the largest margin for a Democrat in Georgia since 1976. The Democrats now hold the Senate majority, but only by one vote, Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking voice. The Senate's arcane rules mean that the Republicans can still hold up legislation using the filibuster. In saying that, the Democrats now hold the trifecta for the first time in a decade meaning that they can bring forward key legislation to a vote.

After Biden's nominees for key government possessions are finalised by the Senate, a mere formality as he has yet to nominate any controversial figures, his administration can get to work formulating legislation. During the confirmation process, the Senate will also be working on Biden’s $1.9 Trillion 'American Rescue Plan'. The package will include $1,400 cheques to every adult in America. The plan also provides funding for vaccinations, PPE, testing, and supporting schools returning to in-person classes. Additionally, the rescue plan aims to bring the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. For years, a rise to the minimum wage has been a cornerstone of Democratic policy, as well as a goal for progressives. Such a rise will immediately help millions of struggling Americans. This rescue plan is the first of three instalments over the next year. The hope is that the future relief bills will include a large scale infrastructure project. The Democrats are hopeful that they will pass the relief bill in the first week of the administration, a tough ask but Biden, a skilled politician on the Hill, might be able to get it done. 

The next piece of proposed legislation is likely to be the H.R.1 named "For The People Act". The legislation would limit gerrymandering, strengthen ethics rules, limit private donations, make election day a national federal holiday, give voting rights to convicted felons and limit the purge of voting rights. The hope is that H.R.1 will be on Biden's desk in February.  

The second impeachment of Trump complicates matters, Biden has asked the Senate to split the day into two. The first half would involve confirming essential nominees and passing legislation. The second half would be Trump's trial. However, the trial could be a laborious process as a former president has never been impeached.  

Democrats plan to reinstate Net-Neutrality in the FEC, they hope to reform Antitrust laws in an attempt to limit big tech companies growing their monopoly. Banning the federal death penalty, decriminalising and legislating for marijuana nationwide, statehood for DC and Puerto Rico are all real possibilities. More large-scale reform of America including adding Supreme Court seats, getting rid of the Electoral College and reforming the Senate, will have to wait until the Democrats have a larger majority. 

A lot of President Biden's most consequential decisions will be made through his executive powers. As we saw with the Trump administration, executive powers are virtually unchecked, so Biden will benefit from some of the norms his predecessor broke. On Biden’s first day in office, he rescinded the Muslim Travel ban, re-entered the Paris climate agreement, extended eviction and student loan payment moratoriums and started to reunite families separated at the border. Biden is expected to sign dozens of executive orders in his first ten days in office. After this, Biden hopes to initiate sweeping immigration reforms, providing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people, and strengthen America's climate action laws. Biden knows he has little time to act. With critical midterms coming up in 2022, Biden and Harris must deliver the change they promised during the election. The new administration also has the task of rebuilding their international reputation, as well as domestic departments such as the EPA and the education department.