You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Moderate Democrats Rule Washington Now

Centrist senators like Joe Manchin and Jon Tester will decide the fate of the party’s more ambitious legislative goals.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The apparent Democratic Senate sweep in Georgia is a fitting coda to the destructive narcissism and strutting authoritarianism of the Donald Trump years. It was Trump’s refusal to accept his rightfully humiliating defeat in November that made the Georgia runoffs a referendum on his presidency. And once again, having Trump effectively on the ballot in Georgia goosed Democratic turnout.

Yes, there is poetry in the election of Raphael Warnock, the Black pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that is forever associated with Martin Luther King Jr. And it is worth noting that Jon Ossoff (who is leading by 17,000 votes but whose race has not yet been officially called by the networks) would be the first Jewish senator from Georgia, 105 years after Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent, was lynched in Atlanta for a murder he didn’t commit.

Ultimately, though, what matters in Washington are Senate votes. And a 50-50 Senate dramatically changes the power realities awaiting Joe Biden on January 20. The moment that Kamala Harris becomes vice president, Mitch McConnell will be stripped of his long cherished power to obstruct and consigned to the dunce-cap title of Senate minority leader. It will be Chuck Schumer who decides what gets to the Senate floor. There will be no more Merrick Garland moments, with a Supreme Court nominee deprived of a committee hearing and a floor vote. There will be no more ignoring House-passed legislation because McConnell doesn’t want to give a Democratic president a victory.

But, in other ways, the Senate will remain an obstacle to bold left-wing dreams. The only reason why Schumer will become majority leader is because moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana managed to eke out reelection in 2018 despite the overwhelming pro-Trump sentiment in their states. Other Senate Democrats like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, also elected in 2018, have thrived politically as centrists.

What this means is that clout in a Democratic Senate will rest with deal-making senators in the center. Depending on the issue, legislative coalitions will be forged with reasonable Republicans (and, yes, you can argue about the description) like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, a reelected Susan Collins in Maine, and the conservative–but courageous–Mitt Romney representing Utah.

The filibuster, which can only be broken with 60 votes, will remain part of the Senate rules. But Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in the House can use a complicated congressional rule called reconciliation to pass spending and tax bills with only a simple majority. Using reconciliation, Biden should be able to pass a major economic stimulus (maybe with a $2,000 individual payment) after he takes office, no matter how much the conservative Republicans scream about the sudden need for budgetary austerity.

It would be a mistake, though, for those on the Democratic left to overplay their hand. Even if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were foolish enough to challenge Schumer in the 2022 New York primary, it would not create a Senate majority willing to pass Medicare for All. In similar fashion, it is folly to believe that pressuring Manchin—who is not on the ballot until 2024 and who represents a state that Trump carried with nearly 70 percent of the vote—would change his moderate outlook.

But there will be a new tenor to committee hearings with Dick Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip replacing the oleaginous Lindsey Graham at Judiciary, and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown’ getting a powerful platform as the chair of the Banking Committee. And none other than Bernie Sanders will become the chair of the Budget Committee, which plays a major role in legislation under reconciliation.

The difficult times facing the incoming president and Senate also provide an opportunity. Without waxing too optimistic, I do wonder whether it might be possible for Congress to begin trying something that has become an anachronism in Washington—actually legislating. Maybe the centrists will find new ways of breaking through the stale debates of left and right over issues like immigration and even global warming.

Even without a pandemic, a 50-50 Senate is inherently subject to the unalterable realities of human mortality. In 1953, incoming President Dwight Eisenhower inherited a Senate in which the Republicans had a one-vote working majority. During the next two years, nine senators died and a tenth one retired, switching party control each time.

After the Georgia runoffs, the true death watch is for Trumpism and the Republican Party. The Democratic victories can be attributed to many factors, from Stacey Abrams’s masterful voter registration efforts to the GOP’s dithering over $2,000 stimulus checks. Nothing, though, better symbolizes the Republican dilemma than Trump’s deranged Monday night rally in Dalton, Georgia, which was supposed to boost Republican candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Instead, Georgia voters were treated to a never-ending rant about rigged elections based on nutcase conspiracy theories.

The Republicans, from Mitch McConnell on down, have created a party that can’t live with Donald Trump and can’t live without him. It is fitting that McConnell, after four years of fealty to a president he despises, has been defrocked as Senate majority leader. The arc of history does bend toward justice.