The greatest day of Joe Biden’s presidency came two weeks before he entered office.
Rev. Raphael Warnock’s upset victory over Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, paired with Jon Ossoff’s expected win over Republican Sen. David Perdue, are poised to give Democrats the narrowest of majorities in the new Senate and with it, enormous political opportunities for the president-elect. Biden now has the chance to steer an ambitious agenda through Congress with the Cabinet of his choosing, and a larger opportunity to put his imprint on the nation’s courts.
Prior to the results coming in, one senior GOP aide had insisted that if their party retained control of the Senate, they would demand an even split on the number of judges confirmed. “Biden gets one, [Republican Senate Leader Mitch] McConnell gets one,” the aide said. “There won’t be a net change in courts’ ideology.”
Those compromises likely won’t be needed now, with Democrats set to have 50 votes in the Senate and, with it, control of the chamber. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaking vote.
Party members were jubilant about Warnock’s and Ossoff’s presumed victories, and they were already mapping out the legislative opportunities that control of both chambers of Congress allows. Biden’s Cabinet nominees are likely to get swift confirmation, and $2,000 stimulus checks and expanded funding for states to distribute coronavirus vaccines are far more probable.
"Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now," Biden said in a statement Wednesday morning. "On COVID-19, on economic relief, on climate, on racial justice, on voting rights and so much more. They want us to move, but move together."
Biden aides reiterated that the president-elect remains just as committed to working across the aisle as ever, noting that the Senate filibuster means Democrats will still have to build consensus.
"There will be negotiations around nearly everything we do and that’s going to require working with members of both parties,” one Biden aide acknowledged. “No one is drinking champagne and thinking every item of our agenda is going to pass easily.”
Biden’s team was privately bracing for defeat in Georgia, but they became more optimistic about Democrats’ chances in recent weeks, steering millions of dollars to the campaigns and sending Biden and Harris to the state in the final days of the race.
In addition to the practical implications of Senate control, the likely victories give Biden a jolt of political momentum and reward the risk he took by weighing in on the race.
A second Biden aide crowed about how Biden helped expand the playing field for Democrats by focusing on issues that matter to people and a promise of unity, whereas Republicans made the mistake of following President Donald Trump down a losing rabbit hole focused on overturning the results of the November election.
The dual victories do not affect Biden’s core focus, aides and allies say, which is tackling the coronavirus, ramping up vaccine distribution and managing the economic fallout from the pandemic.
But funding for those efforts can now likely move more quickly through Congress and on a larger scale, the Democrats say. Specific party priorities, including larger stimulus checks and federal aid for state and local governments struggling to balance their budgets, also now have a shot at being included in another round of coronavirus relief legislation, building on the $900 billion package Congress passed late last year.
Officials cautioned against Democrats getting overly optimistic though, saying that the party’s razor-thin Senate majority is far from a mandate to push through a sweeping, progressive agenda, let alone pass the type of structural reforms that the left craves: from court expansion to ending the legislative filibuster.
The current dynamic “is not a big validator or affirming for either side,” said Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden when he was vice president who is now in frequent touch with the transition team. “This is a very, very divided Senate.”
“It’s not like winning is going to all of a sudden mean everything we want gets passed,” he added.
The one-vote majority means that Biden’s legislative success, instead of hinging on votes from a few key moderate Republicans, will often depend on winning over the most conservative members of his own party.
“You always want to be in the majority instead of the minority for reasons ranging from controlling the legislative agenda to the committee process, but the reality is given the slim margins, it’s going to be rough sledding for the next two years,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Though Biden will still have to traverse more elements of the Democratic party, the benefits of Senate control will be clear in several ways. One of them is the boost it will give the president-elect at the start of his administration, including the likelihood that the Senate will confirm his slate of Cabinet nominees far more quickly — and with far less difficulty — than a Republican-controlled chamber would have.
“All that will help him get a better head start on the year,” one former Democratic official said.
Republican sources on the Hill had told POLITICO that they were hoping to tank several of Biden’s Cabinet picks, including Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Xavier Becerra, OMB Director-designate Neera Tanden, Energy Secretary-designate Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary-designate Deb Haaland. Those nominees now face an easier path.
Though senior aides said Biden will now be able to pursue a more ambitious agenda in certain policy areas — particularly on climate, the courts and raising the minimum wage — he is also planning a range of executive orders aimed at rolling back Trump’s policies. Those orders are unlikely to be as far-reaching as progressives hope, however, as Biden has resisted taking wide-ranging executive action to maneuver around Congress.
Biden and his team remain more optimistic about working with Republicans on Capitol Hill than many Democrats, especially as a significant portion of GOP lawmakers are set to challenge the certification of Biden’s election Wednesday.
But in a radio interview on "The Kenny Burns Show" on Tuesday afternoon, Biden maintained that, "There are enough really decent Republicans, you’re seeing them step up now in the United States Senate, who don’t want to be part of this Trump Republican Party. So, I think there’s a vein to begin to unify the country."