In a stunning upset, Georgia voters have sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate and given that party control of the chamber by the narrowest of margins. The Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Southern Black Democrat to be voted into the Senate by defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff has eked out a narrow win over first-term Republican David Purdue. Assuming the results hold, the wins for the two Democrats would be a significant and welcome development, ensuring that President-elect Joe Biden won't have to deal with a Republican-controlled Senate as he seeks to enact his agenda.
It's more than fitting that Warnock — the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the former home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — would be the candidate to break the color line for Georgia. And it's a sad commentary on the state of American politics that he becomes only the seventh Black person to be elected to the Senate by popular vote (two others were appointed as caretakers to fill unexpired terms, and two were picked by state legislatures during Reconstruction); once Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is sworn in as vice president, only three of the 100 U.S. senators will be Black. That Warnock's apparent victory is historic reminds the nation of the barriers yet to be dismantled.
Beyond the symbolism, his win and Ossoff's are good news for Biden and for the country. Based on past performance, a Senate majority led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could have made it difficult for Biden and his administration to deliver on their promise of a federal government that is both more competent and better attuned to the nation’s needs than was the Trump administration.
It was also essential to remove from leadership a party that has all too readily embraced alternative realities and conspiracy theories, and that slavishly followed President Trump in undermining basic American institutions. The reckless pandering by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and others to Trump's followers bore fruit Wednesday as a mob of pro-Trump zealots broke into the Capitol and chased lawmakers from the chambers.
In addition, a country struggling to overcome a pandemic and restart its economy cannot afford the partisan gridlock that would have ensued if Republicans had retained control of the Senate. Washington has spent four years avoiding major problems that only the federal government can tackle, including the existential threat of climate change, failed immigration policies and crumbling infrastructure. Democrats now have a chance to address them.
Left-of-center constituencies wasted little time pointing to the looming shift in the Senate majority as a reason for Democrats to act boldly. One group pushing a progressive "digital rights" agenda summed up the sentiment perfectly: "Now that Democrats will likely control the House, Senate, and the White House, the party has no excuse but to act aggressively to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration’s policies and enact legislation to protect Internet freedom, human rights, privacy, and democracy," declared Fight for the Future.
Still, it’s important not to exaggerate how much freedom of action Biden will have with a Senate divided 50-50, with two independents caucusing with Democrats and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote.
Even if Democrats were to amend a longstanding Senate rule and abolish the filibuster for legislation — not necessarily an achievable goal, given that some Democratic senators have balked at such a change — Biden would have to reckon with a Democratic caucus that includes more moderate figures such as Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana. And Republicans could have equal representation on Senate committees even with Democratic control. After the 2000 Senate election, which also produced a 50-50 split, the parties agreed to such equal representation. (After Republican Vice President Dick Cheney took office, Republicans held the tie-breaking vote.)
Moreover, contrary to claims by Republicans, Biden is not in the thrall of his party’s left wing and hasn’t endorsed all of its agenda, although his approach would differ vastly from Trump’s on issues as diverse as civil rights, environmental protection and ensuring access to affordable health insurance coverage.
Even with Democratic control, an evenly divided Senate means that Biden will have to compromise with Republicans. That’s his preference in any case.
Assuming Republicans are willing to reciprocate, there is potential common ground on priorities including additional stimulus, counteracting the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration and efforts to deal with climate change. And it's in the GOP's interests to find those areas of common purpose. If Republicans are reduced to being the party of "no," it may only diminish what little respect many of their constituents have for the people who govern them, regardless of whether they're Republican or Democrat. One of the clear undercurrents in politics today is the belief among millions of Americans that Washington isn't working for them. Just like Biden and his Democratic colleagues, Republicans in the capital have a stake in proving them wrong.
Regardless of which party controls the Senate, Biden must deal with a poisonous polarization on Capitol Hill that predates Trump but was exacerbated in the last four years. Democrats in Congress are unlikely to be disposed to compromise with Republicans who signed on to an utterly meritless attack on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. But they need to look forward.
Biden, who promised to be a president even for those who didn’t vote for him, should press Democrats in Congress to be similarly open to legislating in the interests of all Americans. Democratic control of an evenly divided Senate, welcome as it is, doesn’t make such an approach any less important. But it does make it more achievable.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.