The final chapter of the 2020 elections has spilled into 2021, with runoff elections for both Senate seats in Georgia on January 5 set to determine which party will control the Senate. The outcome will determine how much incoming President Joe Biden is able to accomplish during the next four years, including the prospects for additional stimulus spending, health care reform and sweeping climate legislation.
Republican candidates earned more votes than Democrats in the November vote, but no Republican hit the 50% threshold required to win, triggering the runoffs. Incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler faces Democrat Raphael Warnock, for a seat that opened in 2019 when the sitting senator retired for health reasons and Georgia’s governor appointed Loeffler to the seat. In the other race, Republican David Perdue, finishing off his first term, faces Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.
Republicans only need to win one of the seats to retain a two-vote majority in the Senate, allowing them to check Biden’s power. If Democrats win both seats, the Senate will be split 50-50, giving Dems control, since Vice President Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes.
Republicans seemed likely to win at least one of those seats until recent days, with President Trump’s ongoing efforts to overturn Biden’s legitimate victory now possibly harming GOP odds in the state. On January 2, Trump urged the Georgia secretary of state to manufacture enough phony votes to reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia. The leaked recording of that phone call indicates Trump may have broken election law, which could influence runoff voters. Trump has also goaded some Republicans into trying to block Biden’s win when Congress certifies the electoral college vote on January 6, causing an interparty feud that could further disgust voters.
The battle for control of the Senate now looks like a tossup. Here are 4 issues that hinge on the outcome:
The next coronavirus stimulus bill. Congress passed a fourth, $900 billion coronavirus relief bill at the end of 2020, but Biden has called for more. A moratorium on evictions will expire at the end of January, and supplemental unemployment aid will expire in March. Democrats also latched onto to Trump’s call for $2,000 stimulus payments to most adults, rather than the $600 in the December bill. So Dems would like to see at least one additional relief measure, with at least $1,400 more in payouts to individuals. That’s possible if Democrats gain a one-vote majority in the Senate. If Republicans keep control, another round of checks to individuals is unlikely, and other types of aid will likely to less generous.
Fixes to the Affordable Care Act. Biden and his fellow Democrats want to amend this landmark 2010 health care law, known as Obamacare, to indemnify it against legal challenges and offer aid to more people. One simple fix would be to eliminate the “individual mandate” requiring every American to buy insurance, which is a now a feckless feature of the law, since in 2017 Congress repealed the penalty for people who don’t buy insurance. Removing this part of the law would kill the whole argument brought by plaintiffs in the recent Supreme Court hearing on the ACA. Democrats also want to expand subsidies used to purchase health insurance to higher-income people than those currently covered under the law. Republicans who spent the past decade lobbying to repeal the ACA have no interest in any of that and would likely block such measures if they control the Senate.
A higher minimum wage. Biden and many Democrats want to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Republicans are fine with the current level of $7.25, which states are free to exceed with their own minimum wage laws. Not every Democrat is willing to go as high as $15, so a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate might produce a compromise in the $12 or $13 range, phased in over time to dilute the impact on employers.
Biden’s spending and tax hike plans. Biden has indicated he won’t seek big new spending plans on climate change, education, affordable housing and other priorities—along with tax hikes to pay for them—until his second year in office, when the coronavirus crisis is over. But he’ll have to wait longer if Republicans control the Senate, because they back very few of his policy ideas. This type of legislation will be tough for Biden to get even with a narrow Democratic majority, since there are some conservative Democratic senators from states such as West Virginia and Montana who might not go along with tax hikes or deficit spending.
Under the best circumstances for Biden, he’ll still face Senate rules limiting what he can get done. Most Senate legislation requires a 60-vote majority to bypass a filibuster that can stop a bill dead, and Republicans would be able to filibuster just about everything even if they’re a 51-50 minority. There’s one exception: the Senate “reconciliation” process, which typically allows one bill affecting spending, revenue or the federal debt limit to pass each year with a simple majority vote. So if Democrats had a one-vote majority, they could pass one partisan bill in 2021 and another in 2022, as long as every Senate Democrat supported it. But first the Dems have to pull off a shutout in Georgia on Jan. 5.
This story was originally published on Nov. 17, 2020, and was updated on Jan, 4, 2021.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.