There's a lot that Biden won't be able to do with a 50/50 Senate

To say that Joe Biden has an “ambitious agenda” would be to put it mildly. The vast majority of the things he’s planning on doing initially will rely on executive orders, seeking to roll back many of the accomplishments of the Trump administration with the phone and the pen. But as both Obama and Trump learned before him, there’s a limit to how much you can get done without the legislature. Also, any truly radical executive orders will be subject to potential court challenges and injunctions, a tool that Democrats wielded to some effect against Trump. But now, many of the courts that will hear those challenges are more fully stocked with conservative Trump appointees.


Some of the bigger goals that Biden has will have to be done with the participation of the legislature. Chuck Schumer will hold the Senate Majority Leader’s office, but only by his fingernails. Any straight party-line votes in a 50/50 Senate will require Kamala Harris to camp out in the upper chamber and break ties. The Associated Press compiled a list of agenda items that the Senate may and may not be able to deliver for Biden. They’re considerably more optimistic on a few of them than might be merited, but it’s worth taking a look.


With Democrats chairing committees in the Senate and only needing a majority to win floor votes on nominations, Biden is now assured of sealing confirmation of his Cabinet and judicial picks — including potentially for the Supreme Court. It also means controversial choices such as Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick for budget director, can look ahead to assuming their posts. Republicans can slow but not stop nominations.

I would agree for the most part that Biden should be able to run most of his cabinet nominations through unless he really goes off the deep end on some of them. But there’s a reason I’m stressing the word “most” here and it will apply to virtually all of the categories being covered. Schumer can’t afford to lose a single vote if the Senate GOP stands shoulder-to-shoulder. (Not assured, but they’ve done pretty well in that regard over the past few years.) We’ve previously discussed how West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin can be cantankerous at times, and already has been over the recent week. But he’s not the only one. There are other Democratic Senators from marginal seats who know they can only go just so far off the port side. Both of the newly arriving senators from Georgia are perfect examples. If you have any hopes for a second term, you can’t start delivering on the socialist wish list. That applies to SCOTUS picks as well. I predict that a few of Biden’s nominations will go down in flames or be withdrawn when it becomes obvious that the votes just aren’t there.



Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer — he’ll be majority leader once the two new Georgia senators and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are all sworn into office — now has the opportunity to bring legislation to the floor and force votes. That could permit passage of $2,000 direct COVID-19 relief payments and other aid, for instance, and could mean debates on issues like police reform, immigration and climate change. But passage of such legislation would require support from Republicans, which gives the minority party enormous leverage.

That’s something of a generic category. Yes, just like Mitch McConnell before him, Schumer will be able to decide which bills live to see the light of day and have a vote. But that doesn’t mean they will all pass. If he’s smart about whipping his vote counts, some Biden wish list items won’t be brought to the floor if Chuck knows they will fall short. A bigger COVID relief bill? Sure. But that could have probably passed anyway as a number of Republicans are on board. As the AP points out, tougher bills requiring the ability to prevent a filibuster will fall short repeatedly. Keep your eye on Biden’s plans for a new immigration bill for one example. Any massive amnesty plan likely won’t draw more than one or two Republicans and they might even lose Joe Manchin.


That brings us to the things that even the Associated Press is willing to admit are probably pipe dreams for Biden.


Before the November election, pressure had been mounting from the Democratic left to eliminate the filibuster, leading Republicans to charge that Democrats would pack the Supreme Court or give statehood to Democratic strongholds such as the District of Columbia. Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he’ll block any attempt to eliminate the filibuster, so party progressives may be wasting their breath on this topic now.

There you have it. Joe Manchin is rearing his head already. And there’s not one Republican in the chamber that would support ending the filibuster entirely with the Democrats in charge. If they managed to do it, we would close to 2008 territory, but that’s the GOP’s firewall right now.


A 50-50 Democratic Senate and bare control of the House grant virtually any individual Democrat the ability to gum up the works. That means impossible-to-pass ideas like “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal aren’t going to be the focus of Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That could, over time, frustrate liberals and cause them to issue demands related to bills that actually can pass like infrastructure spending and budget reconciliation proposals.


This is the other half of the equation that doesn’t just involve Manchin and a few other senators from red/purplish states. There is no way that Medicare for All or the Green New Deal makes it through this Senate. That’s going to leave some of the most socialist members like Sanders and Warren fuming. They could well start turning the screws on some other bills that might have a shot at gaining at least a small amount of bipartisan support. The AP pegs this part of the analysis correctly.

With that in mind, we can make one assumption rather safely. The Democrats in the Senate will march into the chambers arm-in-arm this month and put on a sunny outlook. But as 2021 wears on, Schumer’s worst problems may be coming from his own side of the aisle, not the GOP.

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