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Democrats worry as waning Senate prospects threaten big ambitions

Some progressives are fretting that their agenda may be doomed in Congress if Republicans hold on to the Senate.

WASHINGTON — The latest results from the election elevate the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency and a Republican-led Senate, which would make Biden the first president since 1989 to enter office without full control of Congress.

Neither is settled yet, but Biden has an edge in the final count to 270 electoral votes and Senate Republicans have more paths to retaining a majority in the final races left to be decided, due in part to GOP turnout surges beyond what polls had predicted, and drop-offs in Democratic Latino support.

"It was a bad night," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said on MSNBC. "I do think Democrats need to sharpen our message. ... We need a popular 'we're on your side' message."

So could a divided Washington get anything done?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who easily won re-election in Kentucky, has styled himself the "grim reaper" of progressive policy ideas.

"There will be no progressive legislation unless Dems take the Senate now or in 2022," said Ezra Levin, an activist who co-founded the group Indivisible.

He said that it's cause for celebration that Trump is "on track to be a one-term president," and that he wasn't ready to concede defeat in the Senate. But he acknowledged that the dream of delivering a death blow to Trump's philosophy and ushering in a new progressive era didn't materialize.

"Folks hoping that last night would be the Disney movie end of white plutocratic power in America are rightfully disappointed," Levin said. "The fight for an inclusive, representative democracy must go on."

Progressives had come into Election Day with big plans. They were hoping to sweep congressional control and use it to abolish the filibuster, bolster voting rights protections and potentially make Washington, D.C., a state. Some wanted to add seats to the Supreme Court in response to Republicans rushing through a justice the week before an election after blocking President Barack Obama from filling a high court vacancy in 2016.

And Biden's legislative agenda could be in peril at the hands of a Senate majority leader who has felt comfortable ignoring liberal legislation during his six-year reign. Biden has called for expanding Obamacare with a "public option," pouring $1.3 billion into rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and spending $1.7 billion to combat climate change.

"The Biden agenda fueled by tax hikes is history," said Brendan Buck, who advised Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner as they faced President Barack Obama.

He said under Biden and a McConnell-run Senate, routine government funding measures "are going to be what policy rides on." Apart from that, he identified infrastructure, coronavirus relief and foreign policy measures such as sanctions as areas of potential cooperation.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., also cited infrastructure as an issue Biden and McConnell could pursue.

In the House, Democrats had high hopes of expanding their majority but appeared on track to lose seats, with a closer presidential race boosting GOP candidates down the ballot.

Biden has a leg-up in the path to 270 electoral votes after NBC News projected victory for him in Wisconsin and Michigan. But to reach 50 Senate seats, Democrats would need to win a tight race in Michigan, capture a seat Arizona where they lead, and flip two seats in historically conservative Georgia, at least one of which is projected to head to a runoff on Jan. 5.

Congressional Democratic aides said the shape of any upcoming cooperation would depend on McConnell and what posture he chooses to take. They noted that the GOP Senate map is more challenging in 2022 and his members may want to take home some accomplishments.

And they said the situation would be different than in 2009, when McConnell was the minority leader and mounted a wall of partisan opposition against the new Democratic president, in that he'd be running the chamber and more accountable for results or lack thereof.

McConnell declined Wednesday to discuss the road ahead until all the results were in.

"We don't know who won the presidential race yet," he told reporters in Louisville. "I don't know whether I'm going to be the majority leader or the minority leader. I've been both. Majority's better."

Sean McElwee, a left-wing organizer and co-founder of Data For Progress, said the movement may have to turn its attention to cities and states for policy victories if the GOP maintains control of the Senate.

"We still control states with half the population and more than half of GDP," he said, referring to gross domestic product.

CORRECTION (Nov. 4, 2020, 10:10 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated who has called for expanding Obamacare with a "public option." It is presidential nominee Joe Biden, not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.