ATLANTA — Democrats have swept both seats in Georgia’s critical runoff elections, NBC News projects, giving the party control of the Senate and removing a major roadblock for President-elect Joe Biden.
Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican David Perdue in Tuesday’s election, NBC News projected Wednesday afternoon, while the network earlier called Georgia’s other race for Democrat Raphael Warnock over GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Biden will now enter the White House on Jan. 20 with his party in control of both chambers of Congress, allowing him to confirm his Cabinet and judicial nominees and giving him and a chance to advance his legislative agenda, which would have gone nowhere as long as Republican Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remained in charge.
The results are a rebuke of President Donald Trump, whose supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to try to stop Congress from counting the Electoral College results. Trump's ongoing attempts to overturn the election results overshadowed the runoffs and some Republicans worried his attacks on the integrity of the election depressed GOP turnout in Georgia.
"Thank you so much for the confidence that you've placed in me," Ossoff told supporters in a video livestream. "I am honored, honored by your support, by your confidence by your trust, and I will look forward to serving you in the United States Senate with integrity with humility, with honor and getting things done for the people of Georgia."
The Senate will now be split 50-50, but Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will be able to cast tie-breaking votes, putting Democrats in charge of the legislative agenda, committee chairmanships and Congress’ confirmation and investigative powers.
"We proved that with hope, hard works and the people by our side, anything is possible," Warnock told supporters Tuesday .
Biden and Senate Democratic leaders agree their top priority will be a new round of Covid-19 relief, especially after the president-elect promised Georgia voters this week that $2,000 stimulus checks would "go out the door immediately" if Democrats won the Senate.
“Georgia's voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday congratulating Ossoff and Warnock. “I have long said that the bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill passed in December was just a down payment. We need urgent action on what comes next.”
A friendly Congress also means Biden will be able to keep the government funded without threat of shutdown and partisan brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. And he won't have hostile congressional investigators making aggressive use of their subpoena power.
“As Majority Leader, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will have a partner who is ready, willing and able to help achieve a forward-looking agenda and deliver help and bold change to the American people,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is expected to take over as majority leader, said in a statement.
Notably, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is 82 years old and has been rumored to be waiting for a time to retire when his seat could be filled by another liberal.
But the fate of the larger progressive legislative agenda remains very much in doubt, given the Senate’s filibuster rule and the narrow size of Democrats' majority.
"If we have a Senate that is divided 50-50, that makes it very hard to do some of the things you just suggested like recognizing Puerto Rico as a state," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, said on CNBC.
Schumer will face immense pressure from the left flank of his caucus to reform or eliminate the filibuster, but opposition from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has made it clear that that idea is basically dead on arrival.
With the filibuster in place, Republicans can block most legislation (unless Democrats can find 60 votes to overcome the procedure), imperiling many Biden priorities, from immigration reform to statehood for the District of Columbia.
"The only viable path to enacting D.C. statehood is bypassing the filibuster — a Jim Crow relic that has been used to block hundreds of racial justice bills," said DC statehood activist Stasha Rhodes.
There is one major exception to the filibuster rule for budget bills, which can through a process known as reconciliation that only a requires a simple majority, and Democrats are discussing ways to take full advantage of that rule or expand it.
The split chamber will put Harris in an unusual position as she is expected to take a more active role as president of the Senate, which is typically a mostly ceremonial role.
Since 1789, only 268 tie-breaking votes have been cast. Vice President Mike Pence cast 13 while Biden did not cast any during his eight years as vice president.
Warnock is the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church in Atlanta. He will be the first Black senator from Georgia and only the 11th Black senator in American history. He won, in part, thanks to astronomical Black turnout.
He was born in Savannah, the eleventh of 12 children raised by his Pentecostal preacher parents in a public housing project before attending the historically black Morehouse College on a Pell grant.
The unusual election, in which the state conducted runoffs for two Senate seats at the same time, shattered spending records with the campaigns and allied super PACs inundating voters with more than half a billion dollars worth of advertising in the two months since the November general election.
Warnock's win in the special election means he will fill out the remainder of the term of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down for health reasons in late 2019. Loeffler was appointed to fill the seat until an election could be held. Warnock will have to run for re-election in 2022, when the term expires.
Ossoff will get to serve a full six-year term.
In some rural areas where the GOP needed to run up the score and counting was completed rapidly, Republican turnout appeared down slightly more than Democratic turnout compared to the November general election.
Meanwhile, turnout was up in Democratic-leaning and heavily African-American areas. The chairman of the board of elections in Fulton County, which includes most of heavily Democratic Atlanta, told reporters in a virtual briefing that Election Day turnout surpassed the November election.
Sahil Kapur and Lauren Egan reported from Atlanta. Alex Seitz-Wald reported from Washington.