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Biden's agenda gets a fighting chance after Democrats capture Senate control

Progressive policies that were dead on arrival in a GOP Senate are now on the table. Chuck Schumer, preparing to become majority leader, promises "bold change."
Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and President-elect Joe Biden during a rally outside Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta on Monday.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden's policy agenda will get a fighting chance in the new Democratic-led Senate after two crucial victories boosted the likelihood of $2,000 stimulus checks, infrastructure spending and climate action.

The presumptive incoming Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised "bold change" that begins with Covid-19 pandemic relief. He will soon seize control of the chamber from Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and have the power to decide what legislation and nominations are voted on.

But Schumer will be limited by a slim majority and a 60-vote threshold for most bills. He'll be able to bypass that under the budget process for some items, which will be the key to advancing major progressive legislation in a Democratic-controlled Washington.

With runoff wins in Georgia for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff projected by NBC News, the Democratic caucus will number 50 senators, thanks to two independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King who caucus with the Democrats. The party will control the chamber due to the tiebreaking vote of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a stunning twist of fate for Republicans who overperformed on Election Day and at first appeared set to hold the majority.

Democratic agenda items junked by McConnell will be allowed consideration. In the near term, Covid-19 relief measures that Senate Republicans opposed are likely to advance. Schumer said Wednesday that the $2,000 stimulus payments that Ossoff and Warnock ran on will be a priority.

"One of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated is deliver the $2,000 checks to the American families," Schumer told reporters Wednesday, shortly before violent pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol and caused a deadly day of mayhem in Washington.

The power shift also means Biden won't have to negotiate with McConnell over top administration personnel or judicial nominees — nor will Republicans have the power to vote them down. Cabinet secretaries and other jobs that require Senate confirmation need simple majorities.

Biden has promised to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, is seen as a potential candidate to retire.

But although Democrats will be in control, the 50-50 Senate will still limit their policy ambitions. A faction of centrist Democrats, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have resisted policies like "Medicare for All" and abolishing fossil fuels, both of which are unlikely to get far.

The party also has a narrower House majority, which could empower centrists in both chambers.

A mandate for progressive change?

Current and former Democratic aides said the best bet to pass new programs is through the budget reconciliation process, in which policies of taxing and spending can pass with simple majorities. That could mean unemployment assistance and aid to state and local governments, as well as spending on infrastructure and clean energy and bolstering the Affordable Care Act.

It is the same process Republicans used to enact a major tax cut in 2017 and through which they tried unsuccessfully to repeal the Affordable Care Act that year.

"Budget reconciliation offers Schumer and the Democrats the chance to enact meaningful and significant policies early in the Biden presidency," said Matt House, a consultant and former Schumer aide. "I think there is broad support for direct and immediate economic assistance in the wake of the pandemic, building on and strengthening the ACA and infrastructure investments."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is in line to chair the Budget Committee, which sets spending priorities but doesn’t have the final say in how federal funding gets spent, told CNN on Thursday that Democrats must push a bolder agenda than in 2009 and 2010 or pay a political price in the midterm election. He said that should include Covid-19 relief, expanding health coverage and mitigating student debt.

"We have got to be bold in a way that we have not seen since FDR in the 1930s," Sanders said. "We can move forward with 51 votes to pass some very significant legislation which, among other things, is what Republicans have done in the past."

It will be a test of Schumer's ability to unify the factions of a diverse Democratic caucus.

Republicans will retain the power to filibuster and force a 60-vote threshold for most legislation. That means that to secure policies like a higher minimum wage, gun control, voting protections and changes to the immigration system, Democrats will need bipartisan support.

"This isn't like 2009. There is no illusion of a mandate — or the votes — for sweeping partisan changes. There is, however, plenty of room for sensible, bipartisan progress on issues like energy, infrastructure and even immigration," said Michael Steel, a Republican consultant who was an aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Climate change activists are far more excited about their opportunities now than they were before the Georgia victories, when they expected endless McConnell-led blockades of their priorities.

"The difference between the odds of passage of major climate legislation under a Senate led by Chuck Schumer and a Senate led by Mitch McConnell is immense," said Jamal Raad, a former Senate aide who co-founded the climate-focused group Evergreen Action.

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"Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats have a mandate to implement Joe Biden's ambitious climate plan," he said, calling for a clean electricity standard by 2035 and $2 trillion for green jobs.

For Schumer, it was a long and winding road to the majority after disappointments in 2016 and 2018 and the 2020 general election.

"We sure did not take the most direct path to get here, but here we are," he said, pumping his fists and flashing a smile. "America is experiencing one of the greatest crises we have ever had in our history, and the Senate Democratic majority is committed to delivering the bold change and help that Americans need."