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Democrats Move Closer to Senate Control As Counting Continues In Georgia

Democrats could take narrow control of the U.S. Senate if Jon Ossoff defeats Republican David Perdue.
Patrick Semansky
Democrats could take narrow control of the U.S. Senate if Jon Ossoff defeats Republican David Perdue.

Democrats moved one victory closer to exceedingly narrow control of the Senate Wednesday after winning one runoff election in Georgia and remaining ahead as votes continue to be counted in another runoff.

Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock, a pastor from Atlanta, defeated GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, after a bitter campaign. Warnock becomes the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from a Southern state.

The win brings Democrats to 49 seats in the Senate, with one race remaining. If Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old Democrat challenging Republican David Perdue, holds his early Wednesday lead, the Senate will be in a 50-50 tie, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking the tie and giving Democrats control of the House, Senate and White House for the first time since 2009.

Ossoff's narrow lead — about 16,000 votes early Wednesday — left the race too close to call despite he and Warnock campaigning closely. If his lead holds, Ossoff would become the youngest sitting senator and the first Jewish Senator from Georgia.

Impact on Biden agenda

Control of the Senate significantly changes what Biden can do but most importantly his party now can set the legislative agenda. Democrats failed to make the kind of gains in the Senate in November that many had forecast, with GOP incumbents staving off strong challenges in several states. But with narrow control, they will wield the gavels for Senate committees, call hearings, and decide which items get top priority.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York will replace GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell as majority leader and will determine which bills come to the floor for votes.

The ambitious proposals addressing climate change and health care and other domestic priorities touted by Biden and Harris will be difficult, if impossible to advance with more moderate Democrats, especially those facing competitive 2022 midterm reelection campaigns, reluctant to sign onto partisan proposals. The much smaller than anticipated House Democratic majority compounds the challenge for the party.

Instead Biden will need to consider which domestic priorities can get bipartisan support since Senate rules now require anything to get 60 votes to advance. The president-elect has already indicated additional coronavirus relief will be his first priority, but he has also said he plans to unveil an infrastructure plan that could get support from Republicans.

But Biden Cabinet nominees will fare better. It's unclear with the short time between setting up committees and negotiating staff arrangements in the narrowly split chamber what that will mean for how quickly confirmation hearings and floor votes can happen with just two weeks before the inauguration.

Return of the bipartisan gangs

After months of stalemate over the size and scope of a coronavirus relief package in the closing weeks of the last Congress, a group of centrists from both parties led by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Maine Republican Susan Collins unveiled a $900 billion compromise plan that became the basis for the legislation that ultimately was approved by the House and Senate and signed by the president.

Manchin has said he hopes that model can translate into efforts in 2021.

Other Republican moderates like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who helped on the COVID-19 aid package could also serve as powerful players if they decide to work across the aisle.

Progressives will push for Senate rules changes

Liberal Democrats have pressed to get rid of the legislative filibuster so that they can pass major health care or environmental bills with a simple majority.

Biden has side-stepped questions about whether he supports doing away with keeping the 60 vote threshold, but several top Senate Democrats have signaled they back changing a rule that many of them once insisted was essential to the institution. There will be intense pressure on Biden and Democratic leaders to show they can pass some bills with GOP support, but if Senate Republicans stay largely unified to thwart the new administration's agenda calls to eliminate the filibuster will increase.

Manchin has publicly said he will oppose any effort to change the rules, and he will have outsized influence in the closely divided chamber.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.