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A Blue Senate?

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Based on the early results from the Georgia Senate special election, it looks likely that Democrats will control the Senate in the 117th Congress. At 2am this morning Raphael Warnock was declared the winner against Senator Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff has a lead against Senator David Perdue, which is only expected to grow as mail in ballots are counted.

The Senate would now be split evenly between Republican and Democrats caucuses, with Vice President Kamala Harris delivering the tie-breaking vote, handing the majority to the Democrats. With Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi re-elected Speaker of the House this week, Republicans will likely be in defense mode through 2022.

A blue flip of the Senate would usher in new leadership roles for the various committee assignments. Legislation in the Senate is typically bipartisan and with such tight margins both parties will have to work together, even more so, to get anything through. However, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would now control what gets considered on the floor as Senate Majority Leader.

In a 50/50 split, moderates have all the power. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most moderate Democrat, is now one of the most powerful Senators in the chamber. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are also critical as more moderate Republicans. Any major legislative efforts will have to court these moderates and aim for bipartisan support.

Committee assignments have not yet been decided, and there will likely be some jostling over the next few weeks. Here’s what we could see for Committee leadership in the Senate:

  • Appropriations: Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) / Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME)

  • CJS Subcommittee: (NOAA, etc): Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) / RM Jerry Moran (R-KS)

  • Commerce: Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) / RM Roger Wicker (R-MS)

  • Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (FDA): Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) / RM Richard Burr (R-NC)

  • Environment and Public Works: Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) / RM Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)

  • Energy and Natural Resources: Chair: Joe Manchin (D-WV) / RM John Barrasso (R-WY)

  • Agriculture: Chair: Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) / RM John Boozman (R-AR)

  • Finance: Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR)

  • Budget: Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

When a Chamber flips, the majority party in a committee gets more funds for staff, and the new minority receives fewer. This means some Republican committee staff will be laid off or start looking for their next opportunity. Democrats will likely look to add to their committee staff teams.


Of course, control of the Senate has major implications for the 2021 policy agenda. If Democrats gain control of the Senate, Biden’s legislative priorities can be funneled through the Democratic trifecta (though as discussed, all major legislation through the Senate will have to be moderate and bipartisan). Based on his campaign, we should expect to see legislation to address climate change, to expand access to the Affordable Care Act, to increase the corporate tax rate, and to reform the filibuster. It will also be easier for Biden to get his political appointments through the Senate with Chuck Schumer in control of the floor. Infrastructure and stimulus are likely top of the agenda for the first few quarters of the year. Most ocean-related bills are small enough that they often don’t warrant floor time, so these will continue to require bipartisan support, although expect many more hearings focused on Democratic priorities in the ocean and environmental space.

For most, larger legislation, the Senate still requires a 60-vote threshold to move past a filibuster and vote, so large packages will have to be bipartisan. Progressives are already calling on Democrats to do away with the filibuster, as has been done in the past on votes on nominations and Supreme Court Justices. HOWEVER, Democrats will likely use budget reconciliation, a process that allows certain budget-related legislation to bypass the filibuster, for one or two key items. Republicans used it in 2017 to pass the tax cut bill, and Democrats used it to pass the Affordable Care Act in the past. Climate change is likely to be a key issue that would be addressed with this mechanism.

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