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A 2020 Biden election win will mean less if the Senate majority stays Republican

Mitch McConnell's GOP doesn't have a strong track record when it comes to crossing the aisle — even to ameliorate obvious and unnecessary suffering.
Image: U.S. Senate begins impeachment trial against U.S. President Donald Trump with opening arguments on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office during a break in opening arguments of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in Washington on Jan. 21.Tom Brenner / Reuters

UPDATE (Nov. 7, 2020, 12:30 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that on Saturday NBC News projects Joe Biden has defeated President Donald Trump.

The 2020 election has been an extended lesson in all of the things wrong with our democracy. Senate Republicans repeatedly blocked efforts to improve election security and prevent the kind of foreign interference that marred the 2016 election. They also failed to find a way to provide the Postal Service with badly needed funds, a failure made even more frustrating by President Donald Trump's admission that he didn't want the Postal Service to be able to handle mail-in voting. Republicans have also, and as usual, tried to prevent Democratic voters from casting ballots using tactics like modern poll taxes targeting the formerly incarcerated in Florida and removing drop boxes in Democratic counties in Texas.

Democrats were hoping a win for former Vice President Joe Biden would allow them to fix democratic loopholes and weak points.

Nonetheless, with millions of ballots yet to be counted, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver predicts that the president will once again lose the popular vote. And on Saturday,NBC News has projected that Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in the Electoral College.

Democrats were hoping a win for former Vice President Joe Biden would allow them to fix democratic loopholes and weak points. These loopholes have helped the GOP win elections despite unpopular policies — such as trying to strip people of their health care. But for these changes to happen, Biden winning is not enough. Democrats also need to win control of both houses of Congress.

Democrats will maintain control of the House. The Senate remains possible — there are outstanding races in North Carolina and Alaska, as well as two Georgia elections. Democrats need to win two of those four to get to 50 votes — but that still looks like a long shot. It's also possible that we won't know the final status of the Senate for sure till early January, when Georgia holds its second and final round of elections.

But assuming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., does maintain control of the Senate, a lot of progressive dreams go out the window. Democrats will be hard-pressed to shore up the voting system, for example. They won't be able to pass HR 1, which would establish nationwide automatic voter registration, restrict partisan gerrymandering, grant former prisoners the right to vote and prohibit many voter suppression tactics. Nor will they be able to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, which required states with histories of voter suppression to clear any voting changes with the federal government.

Without a Senate majority, Democrats also won't be able to rebalance the judiciary. McConnell has stuffed the federal bench with Republican jurists who support the GOP's narrow, self-serving definition of voting rights. This culminated in the week before the election with the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, creating a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court that can be expected to uphold gerrymandering and protect Republican tactics of disenfranchisement. Biden had hoped to create a bipartisan commission to come up with strategies to rebalance the court — but any such strategy is likely doomed by Republican opposition.

Without a Senate majority, Democrats also won’t be able to rebalance the judiciary.

Democrats had even hoped to rebalance the Senate itself. The Senate is strongly biased toward rural voters in states with small populations. A voter in Wyoming, population 578,000, has far more influence on the composition of the Senate than a voter in California, population 39.5 million. These supercharged rural Senate voters lean Republican. As a result, Democrats struggle to win control of the chamber even when they gain a majority of the vote — as in 2018, when they won 54 percent of the Senate vote and lost two seats. Democrats had hoped to help balance the chamber by enfranchising Washington, D.C., whose citizens have no representation in Congress. But in part because the District of Columbia doesn't have two senators, Democrats won't have a majority in the Senate — and therefore can't enfranchise it.

With a Republican-controlled Senate, Biden likely will have serious difficulties passing broadly popular measures. An obstructionist Republican Senate could block the protections for pre-existing conditions that Biden has promised if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare. Protections for pre-existing conditions are popular even with Republican voters, but the GOP has set itself against them nevertheless. Biden will certainly not be able to pass popular gun control legislation or popular abortion rights protections — the last especially necessary since the Republican Supreme Court is likely to erode Roe v. Wade, if not reverse it. Republicans presumably would allow some sort of Covid-19 economic relief bill through the chamber under Biden. But they remain reluctant to spend much despite the scale of the problem, and whatever they approve is likely to be trillions short of what is needed.

After four years of Trump, America is still dealing with a pandemic and fracturing democratic institutions. These same fractured institutions prevent representatives from addressing the country's serious, terrifying problems. Republicans have exploited and at times even created weaknesses in our democracy that help them hold on to power. These weaknesses allow Republicans to avoid accountability.

Presidents have a lot of power, and Biden should be able to do a great deal through executive actions. For example, he can increase testing and ramp up production of personal protective equipment. He can eliminate Trump's Muslim ban, rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and reverse some of Trump's cruelest policies on asylum-seekers.

A true legislative agenda, though, will probably be impossible. Biden loves to talk about compromise and bipartisanship. But the GOP doesn't have a strong track record when it comes to crossing the aisle — even to ameliorate obvious and unnecessary suffering. The pursuit of unaccountable power has historically proven far more alluring.