US POLITICS

Who controls Senate after Georgia election and why is it important?

Democrats will take home both of Georgia’s Senate seats splitting the body 50-50, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the deciding vote for the Democrats.

Who controls Senate after Georgia election and why is it important?
HANNAH MCKAY REUTERS

When the final results are confirmed from Georgia’s runoff elections held on Tuesday, the Senate will be evenly split 50-50 a rare occurrence in American history. The Constitution makes the Vice President the president of the Senate, with the power to cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

While the 50-50 balance of power lasts, Kamala Harris will be able to cast the deciding vote once she is sworn in 20 January. This will give control of the Senate to the Democrats and they will have a choice of whether to share power seeking bipartisanship or if not potential conflict.

How will a divided Senate function?

Due to changes in the use of the filibuster over the years some of the basic functions will be able to move forward with a simple majority. In the event of a tie Kamala Harris will cast the decisive vote. The Democrats will be able to confirm Biden’s nominees for Cabinet positions and for federal judgeships, including a Supreme Court Justice if a seat should become vacant.

For legislation related to the budget or spending the Democrats can use a process known as “reconciliation” to prevent the use of a filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority. This mechanism was used to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and again in 2017 in an attempt to repeal it, where John McCain famously gave his thumbs down.

Other legislation will still face the threat of a filibuster, whereby 60 votes would be needed to pass a bill. There has been discussion of the “nuclear option” of removing the filibuster but that measure seems unlikely.

What will it mean for the Biden presidency?

With the 51 votes, the Biden administration will have smoother sailing to set up his administration. Republican Senators had expressed reservations about some of Biden’s nominees which they could have held up or even rejected. Without the filibuster the Democrats simple majority will allow them to speed through confirming Biden’s new Cabinet.

Biden said that if Georgia elected both Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock he would push for $2000 stimulus checks. Although the Democrats in Congress had favored the measure, Biden supported the smaller payment in the bipartisan bill that finally passed hoping to pass more stimulus once sworn in. Now he will have a surer footing to get increased stimulus passed.

Biden also wants to raise taxes on the households with more than $400,000 in income. Through the budget reconciliation he will now be able to do that if members of his own party don’t go against any such measure.

However his more ambitious program may have more challenges when it doesn’t relate to the budget. Biden wants to undo the hostile environment on immigration and refugees that took form under the Trump administration. Any of these plans will need Republicans to cross the aisle as they would be subject to a filibuster.

How often has this happened?

The Senate being evenly split is truly a rare occurrence having happened only three times in US history. The first was in 1881 when the Senate was divided 38-38. Again briefly in 1954 it was split 47-47 after Senator Lester Hunt committed suicide. In 2001 it was split 50-50 until Senator Jim Jeffords switched party affiliation to Democrat giving them control of the body.

In the case of the 1881 and 2001 agreements were made between the two sides to share some power. This allowed for more bipartisan cooperation, however the current tone in Washington is one of heightened polarization. Biden has said that he wants to create a more bipartisan atmosphere to bring the nation together. It will be seen if he can convince his colleagues in the Senate to do the same after the rancorous post-election pre-inauguration period.