As of Thursday night, former Vice President Joe Biden is poised to become president-elect of the United States. President Donald Trump is trailing in two key swing states and leading in two, but the nature of the uncounted votes — largely mail-in votes from urban areas — portends a Biden win in all four, and he only needs two of them or Pennsylvania to win. Barring a near-miraculous comeback from Trump, Biden will take office on Jan. 20, 2021. However, the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda remains up in the air.
Most sources predicted a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate and House. The Democrats unsurprisingly won a majority in the House, but Republicans secured at least 50 out of the 100 Senate seats. If Joe Biden wins the presidency and Kamala Harris becomes vice-president, Harris would act as a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, so 50 seats would still be enough for Democrats to control the Senate.
Two seats remain undecided as of Nov. 5 since neither of Georgia’s pair of Senate races saw one candidate win a majority of votes. Georgia law stipulates that if no Senate candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two candidates face off in a runoff election. The Democrats, despite their probable win in Georgia’s presidential election, would be underdogs and need to win both races in order to total the magical 50 Senate seats.
Based on back of the envelope math, giving Democrats a one in three chance in each Georgia Senate race and assuming a Biden presidency, there is about a 10% chance of Democrats controlling the Senate. If Republicans win one of the Georgia Senate races, Democrats would need Republican assent for any legislation. Basically, we would revert back to the last two years’ gridlock. Democrats would need to wait another two years for a chance at controlling the Senate and being able to pass legislation without the consent of the Republicans.
Even if Democrats lose one or both seats, it’s possible that Republican senators with a bipartisan streak or from Democratic states — Susan Collins of Maine or Cory Gardner of Colorado, for instance — would occasionally vote with the Democrats. However, they are very unlikely to cross the aisle on all but the most moderate proposals. Progressive ideas like Medicare for All face enough of a challenge with centrist Democrats, let alone these moderate Republicans, so the result of a Republican controlled Senate might just be to push the window of acceptable legislation further right than Democrats want it to be.
A split Congress dampens hope for Bernie Sanders’ wing of the Democratic Party and their progressive agenda. With a Democratic “trifecta” — control of the presidency, Senate, and House — Sanders supporters hoped to pressure centrist Democrats into passing progressive legislation. Now the only solace progressives have is the removal of Trump from the executive branch, which gives Democrats total control over the cabinet and executive orders, even if it doesn’t lead to legislative victories.
Biden and his huge popular vote lead will probably be able to overcome the Electoral College, but even his aggressively centrist campaign will likely not overcome the extreme rural, and thus conservative, bias of the Senate. Though Biden pledged to veto progressive legislation like Medicare for All, the probable control of the Senate by Republicans ensures the death of any bills left of center. Even if they wanted to, Democrats won’t be unable to undo the two years of total Republican control of government during the first half of Trump’s administration. Biden can undo Trump executive orders, but he won’t be able to roll back Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy or pass climate legislation because of the Senate.
One final annoyance caused by a Republican Senate is the inability of Biden to appoint judges that might counteract the far-right judges of the Trump era. Because he needs Senate approval for all judges and most important bureaucratic officials, including the cabinet and the heads of commissions like the Federal Elections Commission, he won’t be able to appoint whomever he chooses as Trump did. Not only will legislation and judicial appointments be automatically rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he will be discouraged from choosing cabinet members like former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang that don’t fit the standard Goldman Sachs cabinet archetype.
Ironically, the likely bipartisan control of Congress is exactly the type of situation that Biden campaigned on. While Trump’s messaging was about a desire to crush what he saw as a rising “Radical Left,” Biden went out of his way to embrace Republicans like John Kasich and reject his party’s left flank. Biden is probably relieved that he has an excuse to ignore legislative appeals from Sanders types, and the relatively close Electoral College race will undoubtedly make him even more skittish around progressives.
Republicans, despite likely losing the presidency, were able to stave off the threat of tepidly left-wing justices, bureaucratic officials, and legislation. Given their poor pre-election outlook, I’d call this election a win for the GOP. They couldn’t have seriously expected Trump to win, and their Senate majority looked tenuous at best, so being able to keep one of the two should please them.