Can conservatives win the majority?

The Democrats only have a majority with limited power in the Senate

With the surprise victory in the two Senate elections in Georgia, the Democrats have gained a majority in the Senate and will rule the White House and both chambers in Congress for the next two years. But that doesn't mean that future President Joe Biden can actually push his plans through without major resistance.

It is a great advantage for Biden if his ally Chuck Schumer replaces Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader and can then set the political agenda. But with a stalemate of 50 seats each between the two parties, which can only be broken with the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, the Democrats have to count on total unity. And that has no tradition in the party.

The Senate has equal rights with the House of Representatives when it comes to passing legislation. In addition, there is the right to confirm all nominations in the government, administration and the judiciary and to ratify international treaties. That gives him even more power.

Joe Manchin, decision maker

The future key figure in the Senate will be Joe Manchin. He is a senator from West Virginia, where Donald Trump received 69 percent of the vote in November. The fact that the 73-year-old Manchin can even be elected there is thanks to his popularity, but also to his conservative attitude towards issues such as gun ownership and abortion. Manchin has voted with Trump more often than against him, including in the vote on the controversial chief judge Brett Kavanaugh. Manchin needs Biden for every appointment of ministers and federal judges. When it comes to climate protection, too, Manchin will often be on the brakes because of West Virginia's strong coal industry.

In addition to Manchin, the younger Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona has often voted with the Republicans. Both are always trying to forge alliances across party lines, for example with the latest economic stimulus package. The Republican Senators Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski, who are critical of Trump, are considered natural allies. In view of such a tight majority, this centrist group could appear even more self-confident in the future.

Since Biden himself is moderate and refrains from overly progressive candidates in the selection for his cabinet, he will probably get these appointments through.

What to do with the filibuster

For most laws, however, 60 out of 100 senate votes are required. This "filibuster" goes back to the time when senators were able to prevent a vote by holding speeches and could only be silenced by a large majority. For projects such as health care reform, a sustainable climate change or a fairer tax policy, Biden would therefore need ten Republican votes. That seems unrealistic at the moment.

Now the filibuster is not a law, but part of the rules of procedure, and could be ended with a simple majority. This has happened in the judiciary, which has enabled Trump to hoist numerous federal and high judges into lifelong posts.

Numerous Democrats are pushing for the filibuster to be abolished at all. Even without him, there is a demographic imbalance in the Senate: every state, no matter how large, sends two senators. And since Republicans now dominate almost all of the sparsely populated states, their 50 senators represent only a minority of voters. Thanks to the filibuster, representatives of a fifth of the US population can block most laws.

Blockade politics light

But many democratic senators also shy away from throwing away this tradition, and Biden, too, adheres to this principle of consensus. Some people have decidedly in favor of the filibuster, and without it there can be no abolition. But he, too, could change his mind if the Republicans under McConnell pursued a policy of blockade, as they did against Barack Obama. A lowering of the threshold or a restriction to certain laws would also be possible.

Either way, off the table is an increase in the number of senior judges that would allow the Democrats to reduce the Conservative majority in the Supreme Court. That is out of the question for Manchin. Biden can also get moderate lawyers through with a slim majority, such as a successor to Stephen Breyer, the oldest in the Supreme Court at 82. But Breyer is a Democrat, and his expected resignation will not change the majority situation. (Eric Frey, 8 January 2021)


Why only 99 senators voted

The "most important vote of our lives," as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday - and yet there were only 99 Senators instead of the usual hundred. The reason was not a lack of interest - it was the electoral system in Georgia. There, and otherwise only in Louisiana, all candidates for state or federal posts must obtain a majority of all votes in order to be elected - otherwise there will be a runoff. The latter was necessary twice this year.

In addition to the regular vote between incumbent David Perdue and the Democrat Jon Ossoff, the successor to the retired Republican Johnny Isakson had to be found. His term of office does not expire until January 2023. Governor Brian Kemp temporarily replaced him with Republican Kelly Loeffler. The Democrats succeeded on Tuesday, in addition to Ossoff, Raphael Warnock was elected instead of Loeffler. However, they were not yet represented in the Senate because of the short deadlines between election and voting. Unlike Loeffler, whose term of office runs until she is replaced by Warnock, Perdue's mandate ended after six years on January 3rd - his seat remained empty. (mesc)