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Georgia Senate wins give Biden power to control Congress — and curb progressives

The president-elect is the one in control of the Democratic Party, leading it down a center-left path that won't be set off course by complaints from the far left.
Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden campaigns for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Ossoff and Warnock in Atlanta, Georgia
President-elect Joe Biden points to Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as he campaigns on their behalf in Atlanta on Jan. 4.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

The Democratic Party pulled off a massive victory by eking out two Senate seats in Georgia for the first time in nearly 20 years, snatching control of the Senate from Republicans. But liberal activists, who turned out in significant numbers in Georgia to put the candidates over the top, shouldn't get too excited. The Biden White House will be running the show in narrowly divided Washington, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris set to break ties in the 50-50 Senate.

Liberal activists, who turned out in significant numbers in the Georgia elections to put the candidates over the top, shouldn’t get too excited.

Though some within the party, buoyed by the twin Georgia Senate wins, argue that now is the moment for Democrats to make transformational change because they control the White House and all of Congress, Biden made it clear within hours of the Georgia victories that he has no such intentions. The most basic freedom in such triple dominance is to not have to rely on Republicans to confirm Cabinet members, as only a simple majority of the Senate is needed. This latitude allows Biden to choose more unconventional, controversial — and staunchly progressive — nominees.

Instead, he announced William Burns for CIA director, Merrick Garland for attorney general and Gina Raimondo for commerce secretary. Garland, a moderate federal appeals judge, isn't exactly a favorite of progressives. Nor is the Democratic Party's left flank particularly fond of Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who had a rocky relationship as Rhode Island's treasurer with the state's traditionally powerful unions before she became governor in 2015.

And while the selection of Burns to head the CIA hasn't drawn liberal criticism, he doesn't exactly embody the reformer label many on the left were seeking. Burns is a career diplomat and technocrat with an intricate set of connections to world players — hardly the type to lead an ideological shakeup at the controversial agency.

The Burns, Garland and Raimondo picks broadly reflect Biden's tendency to be in the middle of the Democratic Party. And they demonstrate Biden's desire for common ground with Senate Republicans, who, after all, retain the power to filibuster the considerable parts of his legislative agenda that require 60 votes to pass. More than anything else, the nominations show that Biden is the one in control of the party, leading it down a center-left path that won't be set off course by complaints from the hard left.

Biden's moderate inclination is only encouraged by a 50-50 Senate, which could even lead to worse gridlock than under President Donald Trump when Republicans held the Senate majority and Democrats led the House. While every senator will potentially have leverage to block bills or hold them hostage, Democratic lawmakers know that going rogue would hand legislative victories to Republicans, because they would only keep their own bills from passing. Democrats will have no choice but to back Biden, because, when necessary, he can try to secure Republican votes by reaching just a little to the right — and staying moderate on policy gives him more leeway to do so.

Progressives haven't shown much appetite for going their own way — which would win publicity but hurt the party. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a failed Democratic presidential candidate, was conspicuously a team player during the presidential race, not wanting to hurt Biden's chances of beating Trump. And with full control of government finally within Democrats' grasp, the Sanders wing is likely to be pragmatic about what can pass, even if it agitates for the Democratic agenda to move further left.

Moreover, during the campaign, Biden promoted his relationships with senators of both parties, including soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican generally loathed by Democrats. Biden in late November predicted that Republicans would have an "epiphany" of bipartisanship after Trump's loss, giving them more incentive to work with him. And at a fundraiser back in July, Biden said, "If we can't unite the country, we're dead."

Biden may be overselling chances for bipartisan cooperation, but he does excel at legislative compromise and horse-trading. Unlike the last three Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who faced considerable distrust and animosity from members of their own party, Biden built up a career's worth of relations in his decades of service in the Senate.

After his time on the Hill, Biden was the lead negotiator with lawmakers over the Obama administration's 2009 economic stimulus plan and its 2010 health care legislation in his role as vice president. If anything, he has a chance to be another Lyndon Johnson, who leveraged his years as Senate majority leader to enact legions of measures.

History is also on Biden's side when it comes to pushing through a president's agenda in a split Senate. Though the circumstance is extremely rare, occurring for only a few months a handful of times since World War I, President George W. Bush showed what's possible while his vice president briefly held the power to cast the deciding Senate vote in 2001 before a GOP senator switched sides. In that short span, Bush's administration muscled through a $1.35 trillion tax cut law that had been a centerpiece of his 2000 campaign.

Democrats will have no choice but to back Biden, because, when necessary, he can try to secure Republican votes by reaching just a little to the right.

Moreover, the six closest states in the 2020 presidential election all have Senate races in 2022: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That gives Democratic lawmakers in those states strong incentive to hew to the center rather than the far left.

Full Democratic control is a rather unexpected gift for congressional Democrats and the Biden administration. But it's one that gives more to the Biden White House than it does to either legislative chamber, as the president will have nearly unprecedented power to set the course of the legislative process. Coming when the Democratic Party is otherwise hopelessly divided, it will force progressive activists to swallow nominations like those that have gone to centrist establishment figures such as Burns, Garland and Raimondo.