New Democratic Senators Mean Biden Takes Control From Day One

Democrats are set to take control of the Senate Wednesday with the swearing in of three new senators, but President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet and agenda still are likely to take days or weeks to get off the ground.

The Senate majority will flip after Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the winners of Georgia’s runoffs, and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s appointed replacement, are sworn in. All three are expected to take their oaths on Wednesday after Biden’s inauguration, according to two people familiar with the plans.

But institutional rules and traditions, and the difficulties of organizing a 50-50 Senate while Congress is also grappling the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, mean none of Biden’s cabinet picks are teed up for confirmation votes on Inauguration Day Jan. 20.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met for about 30 minutes Tuesday with Republican leader Mitch McConnell to begin hashing out details of how committees and other work will be structured in the 50-50 chamber, with the Senate well behind where it would normally be at this point.

Schumer declined to say whether they had any agreement.

“All I’m going to say is we discussed a whole lot of issues,”
Schumer told reporters. Asked if their talks are continuing, McConnell simply told reporters that “we had a good discussion this afternoon.”

Adding another level of uncertainty, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also hasn’t revealed when she’ll send the single article of impeachment over to the Senate.

New Democratic Senators Mean Biden Takes Control From Day One

That notification would trigger the process for the trial and risks consuming the Senate’s time that otherwise would be spent on confirming Biden’s nominees and the rest of his agenda.

Pelosi said Tuesday that she was focused on the inauguration.

Schumer said earlier that his three main priorities are Trump’s impeachment trial, confirming Biden’s nominees and passing another pandemic relief package. “Gotta move them all fast.”

But Republican Senator John Cornyn said the GOP isn’t likely to go along with an agreement to address impeachment and other business at the same time.

“That’s not going to be possible,” he said. “It will take unanimous consent.”

Meanwhile, in one potential complication in the talks on organizing the Senate, a person familiar with the discussions said that McConnell is seeking some early agreement from Schumer that he won’t try to end the Senate’s filibuster tradition that gives the minority the ability to block legislation.

Schumer is under pressure from progressives to try to change Senate rules to end the filibuster if Republicans block key Biden initiatives, although at least one Democrat -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- says he won’t go along.

Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Schumer and McConnell made progress in their discussions. Schumer favors adopting the the agreement put in place when the Senate was evenly divided in 2001, Goodman said.

That deal provided both parties equal membership on committees, equal budgets for committee Republicans and Democrats, and the ability of both leaders to advance legislation out of committees that are deadlocked.

The three new senators leave the Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. Harris would cast any tie-breaking votes, meaning Democrats control the chamber’s agenda, but with no margin for error. The Senate has only been evenly divided three times before: in 1881, 1953 and 2001.

The split poses significant challenges for Democrats. On most legislation, they will need support from 60 senators to cut off debate and move to a vote, according to Senate rules.

Five of Biden’s cabinet nominees will already have had confirmation hearings when he takes office.

Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair who was picked to lead the Treasury Department; Avril Haines, Biden’s choice to be director of national intelligence; Alejandro Mayorkas, tapped for the Department of Homeland Security; retired Army General Lloyd Austin, picked to lead the Defense Department; and Antony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, all have hearings Tuesday.

New Democratic Senators Mean Biden Takes Control From Day One

Despite those hearings, Biden is expected to take office with a cabinet made up of acting secretaries. The confirmation hearings have to be followed by committee votes before the nominations go to the floor of the Senate. For a nomination to go to the floor quickly after a committee acts, all 100 senators would have to agree, or the majority leader has to file cloture to cut off debate. That process takes a few days before finally getting to the confirmation vote.

Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who will chair the Finance Committee when his party assumes control, said an agreement was made that could allow Yellen’s confirmation vote to go to the Senate floor on Thursday. For Austin’s confirmation, Congress needs to pass special legislation giving him a waiver to serve because he retired from the military less than seven years ago. The House is set to vote on that on Thursday.

Schumer on Tuesday pushed for swifter action in the face of delays for nominees in line for top national security posts. He said that “at the very least” the Senate should confirm Biden’s secretaries for DHS and defense -- posts that were completed the same day Trump first came to power.

“The way the Senate works, it will take cooperation from our Republicans colleagues to swiftly confirm these highly qualified national security officials,” Schumer said. “But make no mistake, the Senate will move quickly to consider and confirm President Biden’s cabinet.”

Democratic Senate control should eventually ease the way for confirmations of Biden’s cabinet once they get to the floor, since nominations only need a simple majority for approval.

Pandemic Relief

An early challenge for Biden will be to deliver on another round of pandemic relief Democrats promised voters, including additional direct checks to most Americans. Biden has called for a $1.9 trillion package — a number far larger than Republicans were willing to back under the Trump administration. And it follows on a $900 billion bipartisan package Trump reluctantly signed in December.

Democrats will have a limited opportunity each year to fast-track a budget-related bill to pass with just 51 votes. But even with legislation that requires only a simple majority, Schumer must either keep every Democrat on board or win over some Republican support to offset defectors.

Schumer and Biden will be forced to navigate competing factions within their party, managing the demands of left-leaning lawmakers, such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- with an energized progressive movement pushing for higher taxes on the rich and new regulations in areas from climate change to health care -- while keeping moderates such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia voting with the party.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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