A decisive moment for Joe Biden’s presidency is on the verge of unfolding, even before he takes the oath of office.
Two elections in Georgia tomorrow will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate — and the results will shape myriad aspects of Biden’s administration.
The stakes include whether laws get passed; whether Biden can easily appoint judges, cabinet members and ambassadors; and whether his administration will be dogged by congressional investigations.
That’s why these races have drawn record-smashing fundraising as hundreds of millions in political donations flood the state, and U.S. President Donald Trump tonight is attending his second Georgia rally within weeks.
The rhetorical flourishes on the campaign stump have been equally lavish: candidates are casting these votes as critical for the American republic.
“Are you fired up and ready to save America?” one candidate, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, told a Trump rally here last month, where every speaker insisted a Democratic Senate would lead the country to socialism.
The Democrats, for their part, cast the race as pivotal to getting big things achieved under Biden. “It’s on us to write the next chapter in our history,” Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff told another rally last month.
But what difference, really, would Senate control make?
With a reality check on some of the rhetoric, here’s a look at how these results will shape the coming years in U.S. politics.
Polls show two close races, both upended by personal controversies. Unless Democrats win both, they will remain stuck in the minority. In one race, Loeffler faces Raphael Warnock, a pastor in the former Atlanta church of Martin Luther King; in the other Ossoff faces Republican incumbent David Perdue.
No matter which party wins the Senate, enacting major laws will be difficult — but it will be significantly harder if Republicans remain in control.
Without Senate control, many bills supported by Biden will pass the House of Representatives and die in the other chamber.
The Senate’s controlling party doesn’t just hold a majority of votes — it holds the power to decide what votes are even allowed.
A majority leader will frequently block any votes on issues the party finds politically problematic.
Immigration reform is one classic example for Republicans. Even if the votes might exist in both chambers to make it happen, Republican leaders have avoided raising the issue given the anger it arouses from their supporters.
A more recent example is a new voting-rights act named after the late civil-rights leader and politician John Lewis — it never got a vote on the Senate floor last year.
One Georgia Democrat described Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell as the current gatekeeper of what even gets discussed in the U.S. Senate.
WATCH | Democrats hope presidential win in Georgia will help them flip U.S. Senate seat:
A political scientist at the University of Georgia, Alexa Bankert, said in an interview: “I don’t think the importance of these [races] can be overstated.”
It is, however, possible to overstate how big a difference these races will make when it comes to passing legislation.
That’s because there are serious limits to what Democrats could achieve even with a hypothetical one-seat majority.
That’s due to the decades-old Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most types of bills to overcome the legislation-stalling filibuster.
There is one exception to the 60-vote filibuster rule.
Certain budget measures can pass with a one-vote majority through a complicated process known as reconciliation — it’s been used since 1980 to pass dozens of bills, including key provisions of the so-called Obamacare health reform and Trump’s tax cuts.
But there are serious limitations to that process. It can only be used once a year, and only on budget bills, and the measures usually expire after 10 years.
This has many Democrats eyeing bigger institutional reforms.
Many decry the country’s governing systems as too paralyzed by partisanship to be productive — so they want the 60-vote filibuster gone.
Major institutional reform
And that sort of major institutional reform is unlikely to happen even in a Senate where Democrats hold a one-seat majority.
Don’t count on the filibuster disappearing or liberal judges being added to the U.S. Supreme Court — something many Democrats were talking about before November’s election.
“There’s a bit of me that’s a little cynical about some of the big-picture things Democrats have been pushing for,” said Tony Madonna, a legislative expert at the University of Georgia.
The Democrats don’t appear to have enough votes for such reforms — they’d probably fall short even within their own caucus.
One more conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for instance, has said he’d never vote for either change.
“That won’t happen. I will not be the 50th Democrat to end the filibuster or to stack the court,” Manchin told Fox News in November.
Let me be clear: I will not vote to pack the courts & I will not vote to end the filibuster. The U.S. Senate is the most deliberative body in the world. It was made so that we work together in a bipartisan way. If you get rid of the filibuster, there’s no reason to have a Senate. <a href=”https://t.co/g0fasdzVmt”>pic.twitter.com/g0fasdzVmt</a>
The move to create a 51st state has unprecedented momentum, having recently passed the House of Representatives.
Residents of the national capital would finally get votes in the U.S. Congress and more control over their own municipal affairs, which proponents call a matter of basic fairness.
Controlling the Senate doesn’t simply mean passing bills. The Senate does a lot more than that. It’s the chamber that must sign off on most major presidential appointments.
Nominations to cabinet, the courts, and foreign capitals
This is where those Georgia races could clearly have an enduring impact. Because a one-seat majority grants power over presidential nominations.
Judges, cabinet members, foreign ambassadors, senior departmental officials, regulatory agencies — a president’s pick for all these positions must be approved by the Senate.
If you’re wondering why Barack Obama appointed so few judges in his final two years in office, and why Trump appointed so many, the answer, in two words, is: Mitch McConnell.
The Senate majority leader didn’t just block Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland — it went far beyond that.
Fewer than 29 per cent of Obama’s court picks got confirmed in his final two years in office, compared to 89 per cent in the previous two-year period when Democrats were in control.
Without a Senate majority, Biden will also face tougher fights to get other officials confirmed — including ambassadors.
Diplomacy with Canada has in the past felt the effects of Senate partisanship.
Canada went eight months without a U.S. ambassador under Obama, amid partisan stalling in the Senate of numerous appointments.
The Senate can also shape numerous areas of policy-making, like the agency that regulates the internet and telecommunications. The Federal Communications Commission, which handles net neutrality and regulates social-media companies, is currently deadlocked 2-2, with a vacant fifth seat.
Will the Senate legislate — or investigate?
Finally, there’s the question of how congressional committees use their time. They can legislate, or they can investigate.
Will Senate committees torture the Biden White House with investigations and subpoenas to appear for questioning?
The latter is far likelier if the opposition Republicans retain control. Examples of investigations in the last two presidencies include the Benghazi affair, and the Ukraine impeachment probe.
The Republican who’s recently led the Senate homeland security committee has been investigating Biden’s son.
This leaves considerable power in the hands of Georgia voters.
In the words of one candidate also on the ballot tomorrow, Bubba McDonald, a Republican seeking re-election to the state’s public utilities commission: “America — the world — has Georgia on its mind.”