On Wednesday, January 6, the Associated Press declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner in the Georgia Senate runoff election against Republican incumbent David Perdue, in a huge victory for liberals. The night before, Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, prevailed over the incumbent GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler. Warnock, who preached in the same church as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once did, will be Georgia’s first Black Senator. Ossoff will make history as the first Jewish Senator from the Peach State.
The importance of this unexpected victory for Democrats cannot be understated. There will now be a 50-50 split in the Senate, which means that the Democrats maintain effective control, as Vice President-elect Harris will break any ties. Thus, for at least the next two years, Democrats will hold the White House and both chambers of Congress — a rare opportunity to make real progress.
Warnock and Ossoff’s victories mean that Republican Mitch McConnell will no longer be the Senate Majority Leader; the title will instead be held by Democrat Chuck Schumer. The Majority Leader holds immense power, since nothing can be brought to a vote without their permission, including legislation and judicial appointments.
This means that McConnell will not be able to engage in many of the obstructionist tactics that frustrated many of President Obama’s progressive efforts, when Republicans held the majority in the Senate. For example, in March 2016, Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, but McConnell blocked a vote and refused to even hold committee meetings on the nomination, citing the proximity of the presidential election that November. (Of course, his rhetoric completely changed upon President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in late September 2020). McConnell’s replacement as Senate Majority Leader opens the door to more progressive appointments to Cabinet positions throughout the first several weeks of Biden’s term.
Democrats’ control of the Senate also means that they will have the power to set the legislative agenda. While McConnell would have been able to prevent floor votes on climate regulations or health reform, for example, Schumer will be able to bring those to the forefront of Senate debates. Furthermore, Democrats will now hold a majority on the committees and subcommittees in the Senate, which gives them influence early in the legislative process.
The result of all of this is that we can expect more of Biden’s progressive agenda to be implemented in his first two years. There is a stark contrast between the legislation that Obama could pass during his first two years as President — during which Democrats controlled both the House and Senate — and his remaining six years, during which Republicans held at least one chamber. President Obama’s greatest legislative accomplishment is widely considered to be the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010 without a single vote from Republicans in either chamber of Congress.
After Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2011, Obama was much more constrained. Although he tried repeatedly to pass legislation addressing climate change, he was largely limited to unilateral executive orders. His greatest environmental accomplishment was helping to broker the Paris Climate Accord, a nonbinding international agreement that did not require congressional approval. Unfortunately, executive actions like this are temporary, and as President Trump demonstrated, they can easily be undone as the White House changes parties. He and the Republican-dominated Congress used the Congressional Review Act to nullify many late Obama-era federal regulations, reversing years of progress. Had President Obama had the support of Congress, he could have passed more substantial and permanent laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the polarization of federal politics today, we can expect many votes along party lines under President Biden. Fortunately for him and for our country, party-line votes will be sufficient to pass long-overdue legislation on climate change, racial justice, and healthcare reform. We can expect $2000 pandemic relief checks, investments in clean energy, and gun regulation. In short, Warnock and Ossoff’s victories in Georgia mean that Biden’s campaign promises are within reach.
Black voters turned out in record numbers this election, allowing Democrats to sweep a historically red state and challenge Republican domination of the South. With racial justice, pandemic leadership, and environmental protection at the center of attention, Georgia has sent a clear message of support to Joe Biden: it’s time to build back better.