Democrats Are About to Control Congress. What Will They Do?
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The stakes of the two Senate elections that occurred in Georgia two weeks ago, in the words of former President Barack Obama, could scarcely have been higher: Even before President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Trump in November, political analysts were warning that his F.D.R.-style agenda would never be realized as long as Republicans held the Senate reins.
But after weeks of anticipation, voters in Georgia wrested them away, handing Democrats the most power they’ve had in a decade. What will Democrats do with the legislature they will within days control? Here’s what people are saying.
The most immediate consequence of a Democratic Senate is that Mr. Biden will now be able to quickly staff his administration and appoint judicial nominees with only a simple majority — the filibuster rule no longer applies to such votes — affording him more time for the actual business of governing.
“We won’t know to what extent Republicans would’ve blocked judicial and executive-branch nominations had Mitch McConnell remained the majority leader, but all the evidence suggests they wouldn’t have held back,” Jonathan Bernstein writes in Bloomberg. “Now Biden’s nominees will only be subject to the kind of foot-dragging that Democrats used against Trump’s picks, not full-out blockades.”
Perhaps most important, Senate Republicans will not be able to block the president from filling vacancies in the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, as they did during the Obama administration. For that reason, some Democrats are already pushing for the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, who is one of three left-leaning members of the Supreme Court and, at 82, its oldest.
“Justice Breyer’s service on the court has been remarkable, and history will remember him even more fondly if he ends up playing a critical role in ensuring the appointment of the first Black woman to the court,” Brian Fallon, a co-founder and the executive director of Demand Justice, told Politico. “Timing his retirement in the coming year would guarantee that opportunity, and it would be wise to do so because the window may prove a narrow one.”
Even with a majority in Congress, Mr. Biden’s agenda still risks being stymied by the Senate filibuster, an institutional tactic that effectively raises the threshold for passing most bills to 60 votes from 51 votes. “If Democrats decide — and it is crucial to say that it would be a decision, a choice — to leave the 60-vote threshold in place, that entire agenda, and far more beyond it, is dead,” my colleague Ezra Klein wrote in October at Vox.
Whether Senate Democrats will vote to abolish the filibuster is still an open question. But for now, Democrats plan to circumvent the filibuster through a process known as budget reconciliation, which can be used to pass certain kinds of legislation by a simple majority. The process has provided the mechanism for several major legislative efforts in the past two decades, including tax cuts under President Trump and President George W. Bush, and the final version of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
The reconciliation process will be overseen for at least the next two years by Senator Bernie Sanders, the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who told The Times that he plans to be “aggressive” in realizing the progressive program Mr. Biden campaigned on.
As Dylan Matthews points out at Vox, however, budget reconciliation has its limits: It cannot be used for noneconomic purposes, and because it is necessarily tied to yearly budget resolutions, Democrats will have at most three opportunities to take advantage of it before the 2022 midterm elections. “Still,” Mr. Matthews writes, “it’s plausible that Biden and his allies in Congress can use budget reconciliation to accomplish large swaths of his agenda.”
Economic relief: Democrats, including Mr. Biden, campaigned in Georgia on the promise that if they retook the Senate, they would immediately seek to increase the stimulus checks that Congress ordered in December to $2,000 per person from $600, an idea that Mr. Trump supported but that Mr. McConnell refused to put to a vote on the Senate floor.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden announced his proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package to make good on that promise: On top of the $1,400 direct payments, it includes generous unemployment benefits, federally mandated paid leave at least through September for workers and large subsidies for child care costs, along with more than $400 billion to accelerate vaccine deployment and $350 billion to help make up for state and local governments’ budget shortfalls.
Mr. Biden plans to unveil another set of spending proposals in February that is said to focus on job creation and infrastructure, clean-energy projects, health care and education.
Student debt: Absent from Mr. Biden’s economic proposal was any plan to address the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt that Americans hold. Because the bulk of that debt falls under the purview of the Department of Education, activists, legal scholars and lawmakers have argued that the president has broad authority to cancel it himself.
Mr. Biden has so far resisted this idea, instead favoring congressional legislation that cancels up to $10,000 in federal student debt per borrower. In the meantime, he is reportedly planning to extend the existing moratorium on student loan payments and interest.
Climate change: Last summer, Mr. Biden debuted an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan that promised to put the country on “an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” while also remedying economic and racial inequality.
There are some regulatory components of Mr. Biden’s plan, such as a binding mandate to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, that may be able to pass only with 60 votes in the Senate. But even those features of Mr. Biden’s plan could still be enacted through budget reconciliation, argues Sam Ricketts, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Number one, it’s an investment agenda, and reconciliation is fundamentally about spending and taxing,” he said.
Democratic control of the Senate will also make it possible to reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations through the Congressional Review Act via a simple majority, David Malakoff explains in Science.
Taxes: During his campaign, Mr. Biden promised to expand tax credits for low-income people while raising taxes on the wealthy, corporations and estates to generate $4 trillion over 10 years.
“Biden will have a relatively easy time pushing through tax cuts he has proposed for modest earners and the middle class, such as expanding the child tax credit for the duration of the economic crisis, and permanent tax cuts to ease the burden of paying for health insurance, child care and a first home,” Yeganeh Torbati writes in The Washington Post. But when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, he may face pushback from conservative Democrats.
Health care: Proposals that aim to overhaul the country’s health insurance system, such as the creation of a public option that Mr. Biden has called for — to say nothing of the kind of Medicare-for-all plan progressives have championed — are likely to remain out of reach, my colleagues Sarah Kliff and Margot Sanger-Katz explain.
But a good deal of Mr. Biden’s health care plan — lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 from 65, expanding subsidies for the Affordable Care Act and extending coverage to low-income Americans in the 14 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid — are theoretically achievable via reconciliation.
As long as the filibuster exists, some of the most significant elements of the Democratic Party’s agenda are still likely to remain out of reach. Here are a few:
Banning the production of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Expanding the number of seats on the federal and appellate courts and the Supreme Court.
Passing the comprehensive immigration legislation that Mr. Biden reportedly plans to introduce that would create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country.
Granting Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico statehood.
Enacting the For the People Act, a sweeping package of proposals passed by the House in 2019 that would, among other reforms, shore up and expand voting rights, ban partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strengthen anti-corruption laws and restrain the influence of big money in politics by establishing public financing for elections.
The last two items, in particular, would be necessary, if not sufficient, to offset the growing structural disadvantages that Democrats face in Congress. “With Democrats unlikely to get a 60-vote majority anytime soon,” Mr. Matthews writes, “that could mean the party’s structural problems will just keep getting worse.”
That prospect is one reason a growing number of Democrats, including Mr. Obama, have begun calling for the filibuster’s elimination. As Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts wrote in an influential 1995 academic article, “no other democratic system in the world requires support of 60 percent of legislators to pass government policy.”
The idea of doing away with this requirement has met resistance from conservative and progressive Democrats alike: “Having just lived through being in the minority and how destructive the 51-vote threshold has been for Supreme Court justices, I just want to think long and hard about it,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Politico in 2019. More recently, however, both Senator Charles Schumer, the incoming majority leader, and Mr. Biden, who in years past defended the filibuster, have signaled their openness to eliminating it if, as Mr. Biden put it over the summer, there’s no other way to move.
Whatever positions Democrats have staked out before, the debate is almost certain to take on new salience having now exited the realm of the theoretical. “With unified Democratic control of government, there should be no excuses for bad or inadequate policy,” the political analyst Matt Bruenig tweeted. “They can get whatever they want done. If they don’t, it’s because at least some of them don’t want to.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Georgia’s Senate Results Mark a Sea Change in American Politics” [The New Yorker]
“How the Georgia election results just raised Biden’s climate ambitions” [The Washington Post]
“3 health care policy predictions now that Democrats have won control of the Senate” [Vox]
“Say It With Me Now, ‘Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’” [The New York Times]
“Democrats are poised to control the US Senate. They have no excuses any more” [The Guardian]
Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Deplatforming Trump Could Work. But at What Cost?
Tim Hargrave, professor of business at Central Washington University: “Facebook and Twitter are within their rights to cut Trump off, but that doesn’t resolve the underlying problem, which is that they even have a choice. Nobody elected Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to enforce speech laws. Legal changes are needed so that these companies are held responsible for the content posted on their platforms. With vigorous enforcement, these new laws can make a difference.”
Josie from Ohio: “To the notion that deplatforming Trump will now drive the movement underground: Sorry, it was above ground and in plain view for years and our security apparatus STILL failed to do anything substantive to prevent the events of Jan. 6.”