Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win on Tuesday in Georgia’s runoff election gave Democrats a slim 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate — something experts say could make all the difference in helping pass progressive legislation over the next two years.
“Democrats are going from having no margin for error to having a little margin for error,” Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based public policy research think tank, told Yahoo News. “That's a big difference.”
After holding a 50-50 advantage for the past two years in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, Democrats no longer have to adhere to a power-sharing agreement that governed the procedures in the Senate, and previously gave Republicans significant leverage.
With the additional seat, Warnock and his colleagues will now have clear majorities on each committee, which are currently evenly split, making it easier to launch investigations or issue subpoenas, approve nominees and maneuver around more moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have blocked President Biden’s priorities in the past.
“It is good for the efficiency of the Senate,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and the chairman of the Banking Committee told the New York Times. It was in Brown’s committee that Republicans earlier this year delayed some of Biden’s nominees by simply not showing up to vote.
“We can be more nimble, we will be a lot quicker, we will be a little more decisive, and that’s good,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we will pass everything.”
With a real majority, Democrats are also able to process legislation faster, which in turn means bigger staffs and bigger budgets to get the work done. If someone gets sick and cannot make a vote, Democrats have a bit more wiggle room.
“Democrats are just a regular majority party now,” Wallach said.
Warnock’s seat also gives his party some cushioning ahead of what could be a hard 2024 election slate, when at least 23 of their senators will be up for reelection.
"Democrats have twice the number of seats up as Republicans [in two years], and Democratic incumbents look more vulnerable," Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, told Politifact, a nonprofit run by the Poynter Institute. In 2024, he added, “it is possible that the Democrats will lose the Senate and capture the House."
Warnock’s win alone doesn’t give Democrats the ability to pass progressive priorities like climate change outright, as most bills require 60 Senate votes, but it does give them some room to maneuver.
“This is still the Senate,” Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Climate Wire. “They’re better off with 51, for sure. But it’s not the silver bullet that turns the Senate into the House.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday said that Warnock’s victory “gives us a lift.”
“We can breathe a sigh of relief,” Schumer told reporters at a presser in Washington, D.C. “Obviously judges and nominees will be a lot easier to put on the bench. … The fact that we got the 51 votes gives us just a great feeling [of] enthusiasm, unity, encouragement.”
But Wallach is somewhat cautious to overstate Democrats’ new power with a Senate majority, calling it a “very nice luxury,” while also acknowledging that Republicans now hold a majority in the House, albeit by a slim margin.
“We're in an era of divided government now,” Wallach said. “Democrats in the Senate have to find ways of working with Republicans in the House whenever they want to pass legislation.”
With several House Republicans making it known that they plan to launch a bevy of investigations on issues ranging from Hunter Biden to the southern border when they assume office on Jan. 3, Democrats, now with a majority in the Senate, will be able to return the favor.
“Thank God he ran,” Schumer said of Warnock. “The people of Georgia are better off. The Democratic Senate caucus is better off. And America is better off because he ran and won.”
For Wallach, Tuesday’s election is also significant because of the message it sends to Republicans.
“Warnock’s win puts a big exclamation mark on the idea that President Trump really cost Republicans in this election cycle,” he said. “Herschel Walker was his favorite candidate who got through a primary field thanks to his support and then went on to struggle and … lose what should have been a winnable seat for Republicans.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images