Politics

What Do the Georgia Senate Victories Mean for Joe Biden’s Legislative Agenda?

The filibuster isn’t going anywhere.

President-elect Joe Biden, an old white man, standing at a lectern.
Joe Biden is a Senate institutionalist. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the historical significance of Raphael Warnock’s and Jon Ossoff’s Senate victories in Georgia. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: On Wednesday morning, we got the extraordinary news that both Georgia Senate seats will now be held by Democrats. Let’s talk about what a 50-seat Democratic Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any ties, can do and what it can’t do.

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John Dickerson: In 2000, Republican leader Trent Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle worked out a power-sharing arrangement. It was a 50-50 split, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie, but the Democrats had a lot of control that they wouldn’t otherwise have had as a minority. So, I wonder how that all is going to get sorted between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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The split makes some things easier for Joe Biden, when it comes to confirmations and that kind of thing. The question is: Will a moderate swing coalition of Joe Manchin, D-WV; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Mitt Romney, R-Utah; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., try to assert itself? If that existed, it would be right in Joe Biden’s wheelhouse. That’s a Senate that he believes in, which could be very interesting. It would also bring a lot of heartburn to activists who will want to see progress of a more robust nature than anything that would be able to pass through a Senate controlled by that kind of coalition.

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Emily Bazelon:  They can confirm judges. That’s really important. They can confirm Cabinet appointees. They can pass through budget reconciliation spending bills with only 50 votes.

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What they cannot do, unless they eliminate the filibuster, is voting rights, and D.C. statehood, and Puerto Rican statehood, and these kinds of structural reform questions—unless they’re willing to change the rules of the Senate. People are suggesting that they could eliminate the filibuster for a special class of bills and get Joe Manchin to take one hard vote. Then the new senators from D.C. or Puerto Rico could run with the ball, and he’d be off the hook. I don’t know. That seems too clever by half. But budget reconciliation is a very big deal. If you pass a huge omnibus spending bill, like the one that Congress did just pass, you can do a lot to address economic woes and economic inequality, which is such a continuing problem for the country.

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Plotz: Right. But you really can’t address the big structural problems. That does seem problematic. John, do you think there’s any chance they ditch the filibuster

Dickerson: No. I don’t think so. If you’re Joe Biden, and you believe in the Senate—which he does, because that’s the institution he spent the most time in—you could see some opportunity to get things done through a coalition. If you got rid of the filibuster, it would give Republicans a thing to rally around. It would set all the Republicans against him for the rest of the term.

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Now, a lot of progressives would say, “Yeah, well they’re set against you anyway, so deal with the politics of the reality, not the politics you would like to see.” That push and pull will be something we’re going to talk about 80 billion times between now and the end of the Biden presidency. But if you think of it from Joe Biden’s perspective, the aggressiveness of getting rid of the filibuster would close off all kinds of other opportunities of things that he might want to try and pass through a Senate that, in his mind, operates close to the one that he used to be a member of.

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Plotz: I don’t get the excitement about getting Collins and Romney and maybe Murkowski. That’s three votes. To do what? You don’t need three votes, you need 10 votes.

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Bazelon: It’s political cover. Then you can claim bipartisan support.

Plotz: Yeah. Political cover to do minimal things.

Dickerson: You still need 60 votes. Some people will say, “Well, you have to look like you’re trying to do bipartisan things first, to prove the system’s broken. Then you can go do the stuff you want to do.” That was Obama’s philosophy.

Bazelon: Yeah, but the clock is ticking. There isn’t very much time.

For the full episode of the Jan. 7 Political Gabfest, in which Bazelon, Dickerson, and Plotz also discussed Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or listen below.

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