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Senate Democrats contemplate divided government under a Biden presidency

“I am going to clean the slate and be open-minded to the idea that this will open up a new era of cooperation,” one Democratic senator said.

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are coming to terms with the possibility of a different type of Congress than they had expected — one without a clear Democratic majority.

Instead of sweeping Democratic policy changes with a Democratic president willing to sign bills into law, they are bracing for a best-case scenario of cooperative Republicans agreeable to incremental policy wins. But they fear a wall of obstruction from Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who could retain his position as majority leader after all Senate races are called.

“I am going to clean the slate and be open-minded to the idea that this will open up a new era of cooperation,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a phone interview.

“The real test is whether there’s going to be a blockade against [Biden] Cabinet. If there is, we know [Republicans] are deciding to go scorched earth,” Schatz added.

Democrats have little trust in McConnell, a partisan tactician whose top priority is maintaining his Republican majority. They also say McConnell will have little incentive to cooperate — he will be navigating as many as a half dozen Senate Republicans who will immediately begin posturing for a potential 2024 presidential run.

And McConnell can’t lose sight of the possibility that President Donald Trump could run again in four years — or simply work to remain in the limelight, thus maintaining what Democrats predict will be significant influence over Senate Republicans.

“Donald Trump is not going away,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told NBC News in a phone interview.

Murphy warned that such dynamics will guide McConnell, who he said will create an “instantaneous constitutional crisis” by blocking Biden’s selections for Cabinet. Murphy predicted McConnell will “Merrick Garland every single Cabinet nominee” put forward by Biden, referring to President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016, whom McConnell refused to consider.

Those in McConnell’s orbit have refused to entertain questions about his strategy, saying there is “plenty of time” to discuss that down the road.

Acknowledging the partisanship plaguing Washington, McConnell said Wednesday that he would like to see “a more cooperative situation than we have.”

But Democrats are skeptical.

“The conditions are so antithetical to that goal” of big, bipartisan accomplishments, one top Democratic aide said.

The party has scaled back dreams of sweeping climate change legislation, and some Democrats say the progressive policy agenda on issues of health care and expanding the Supreme Court aren’t possible; Democrats now must think incrementally and tactically about where to get minor wins, they say.

Biden will inherit the biggest crisis in a generation, the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed nearly 240,000 lives and is again on the rise amid a nearly nationwide surge of new cases and a sputtering economy.

Biden, having been in the Senate for decades before serving with Obama, has relationships on both sides of the aisle. As vice president, he reached multiple significant policy deals with McConnell when Obama could not.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who won his re-election by a wider margin — 10 points — than expected shortly after pushing through conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett after millions of ballots had already been cast, has made overtures to governing by consensus, but indicated that it depends on the Democrats’ agenda.

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“The vice president deserves a Cabinet,” Graham said of Biden. “I won't be part of the resistance. The one thing I hope that doesn't happen if Biden wins that there'll be a resistance movement in the Republican Party.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said in a statement, “Clearly, nothing’s going to become law without the Senate Republicans.”

Building bridges

Congressional Democrats expected to gain seats in the House and the Senate, but ended up losing ground in the House in several Trump-won counties. Meanwhile, both Georgia Senate races could go to a runoff, setting up a dramatic Jan. 5 special election that could determine control of the chamber.

Lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle say the election results failed to give either party a governing mandate.

In a narrowly divided Senate, moderates can be the power center of the body, and a half-dozen Senate Democrats and aides mentioned that an ever-revolving bipartisan coalition will be necessary.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat, is hoping to regain his mantle of bridge builder. He said he reached out to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican who won a hard-fought re-election battle.

“I said, ‘I can't wait for you and I to get back to D.C. and start. Hopefully we can start healing the Senate, bringing people together,’” Manchin said of his conversation with Collins. “And she was very receptive to that.”

Manchin said he told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that in the new Congress, he and McConnell should “sit down at least one time a week to have coffee, lunch of dinner” to rebuild a polarized Senate and electorate.

Graham made clear that centrism would be necessary for any legislation to move. “I will do everything I can to stop the radical agenda coming from Nancy Pelosi’s House," he said of the California Democrat. "Speaker Pelosi, if you enact the agenda you’re talking about, we’re going to bury it in the Senate because it’s bad for America."

But even as Democrats fret about a divided government, some see a big silver lining — that Trump has been defeated.

“The republic has been saved,” Schatz said. “The challenges within the republic remain, but at least we still have one.”