What to expect from the Democrats’ new Senate majority

Fels Director Matthew Levendusky gives his insights on the impact of Democratic control of the Senate, the importance of majority rule, realistic expectations, Chuck Schumer as majority leader, and how the heads of the federal trifecta will get along.

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

The Democrats, for the first time since the first two years of the Obama administration (2009-11), control the presidency, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

They won the House in 2018, the presidency last November, and reached a Senate majority last week, with the additions of newly elected Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, and Alex Padilla of California, who was appointed to fill Vice President Kamala Harris’ Senate seat.

Obama came into office with a 255-178 Democratic majority in the House and a 57-41 majority in the Senate, which soon grew to 60-40. President Joe Biden begins his term with much smaller margins, 221-211 in the House and the Senate is tied 50-50, with Vice President Harris’ tie-breaking vote giving the Democrats the majority.

Political science professor Matthew Levendusky, the Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government, gives his insights on the impact of Democratic control of the Senate, the importance of majority rule, realistic expectations, what to expect from Chuck Schumer as majority leader, and how the heads of the federal trifecta will get along.

Political science professor Matthew Levendusky, the Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government.

Were you surprised that the Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia?

I think everyone’s expectation was that winning both seats would be a bit of an uphill climb for the Democrats. This is especially true given that, in the November 3rd election—even with Joe Biden at the top of the ticket—[David] Purdue won more votes than Ossoff did. But in the runoff election, Democrats were able to very effectively get out the vote and use that to help them get over the top in both of those races.

Obviously, the House operates under simple majority rule. Can you talk about the importance of majority rule in the Senate?

There are several reasons why having majority control matters. One is access to the floor because the majority leader in the Senate has privileged access to the floor. In this case, [New York Senator] Chuck Schumer rather than [Kentucky Senator] Mitch McConnell will get to be the one deciding what comes up for a vote. It’s not necessarily that Democrats will be able to unilaterally pass a lot of these things because of the ability to filibuster, but at least they’ll be able to bring bills to the floor because one of the big complaints from Democrats in the last Congress was that Democrats would pass something in the House, but then McConnell wouldn’t bring it to the floor in the Senate.

The second thing—and in some ways, the most important thing—is that Democrats will be able to control the committees and use that to do things like help Biden fill seats on the judiciary because you can no longer filibuster judicial nominations.

And then finally, there is a path to pass things with 50 votes through a procedure called reconciliation. Now, reconciliation is complicated and it only operates on a relatively narrow set of policies—most notably, policies that involve the budget—but it could be a way, for example, for Democrats to increase taxes because that obviously has direct financial implications. That said, a broader legislative agenda is still going to require overcoming a filibuster, which requires support from Republicans.

Along with the impeachment trial, Senate Democrats have a lengthy list of priorities. There’s pandemic assistance, the Green New Deal, infrastructure spending, criminal justice reform, immigration, and I’m sure Biden will want to reinforce Obamacare. Do you expect the Democrats to take bold actions, or be more measured, since they do have the slimmest of majorities possible in the Senate?

You can be as bold as you want but you can only enact things that you can actually get passed. At the end of the day, Democrats aren’t going to be able to do more than what Senators such as [West Virginia Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin or [Arizona Democratic Senator] Kyrsten Sinema want them to do. That’s really going to be the key thing. Even doing anything with a 50-vote reconciliation procedure means that they need to bring every Democrat in the caucus along, and that requires convincing these most conservative Democrats.

Do you expect moderate or conservative Democratic Senators like Manchin, Sinema, or Jon Tester of Montana to play a more outsized role in the Senate since I guess they would somewhat be swing votes on certain 50-vote issues?

The pivotal people are always the ones who are the most important, and it’s those centrist legislators who are going to be the ones who decide what can actually pass. It’s going to be people like Kyrsten Sinema, Jon Tester, Joe Manchin. On the Republican side, someone like a Susan Collins [of Maine] or a Lisa Murkowski [of Alaska] are also likely to have pivotal roles for building bipartisanship. Those pivotal people who are going to provide you with that 50th vote are really going to be the ones holding a lot of power.

What do you expect from Chuck Schumer as majority leader? Mitch McConnell had a reputation for being patient, or calculating, or maybe even ruthless. What do you expect from Schumer? Do you expect him to change any of the things that he complained about Mitch McConnell doing?

It’s funny how one’s perspective on what the majority leader should or shouldn’t do often corresponds very strongly to whether one is the majority leader or the minority leader at that point in time. I think that every majority leader is going to try to keep his or her caucus together, but the challenge in the Senate is that members—much more so than the House—have a wide swath of individual prerogative. Look at what [Pennsylvania Senator] Pat Toomey was able to do in order to keep the government funded, where he insisted that the federal government basically change the way that it structures these loan programs at the Treasury that were set up in the wake of the pandemic. Each individual senator has a lot of power, so in some ways, the Senate majority and minority leaders are in a difficult position because, yes, they obviously have quite a lot of power, but they’re also very constrained by the fact that their members have a lot of individual latitude as well.

Biden served in the Senate for 36 years before he was elected vice president. Do you think his decades in the Senate and knowledge of how the it functions will help him work with the body?

That kind of experience is really invaluable. It’s not just that Biden was a senator, it’s that he was a senator, he was vice president, and he’s been very involved in the way the government functions and understands the way that these processes unfold and work. There’s no job that can truly prepare you for the presidency, but he comes in, relative to recent past presidents, with a lot of knowledge about how the system functions, how the House and Senate work.

That said, we should be careful in thinking that that means he has some sort of magic power to do things, because members of the House and Senate have their incentives that they will pursue. But I think Biden certainly has an advantage in understanding what the scope and the parameters are.

The other thing I would say, though, is that even though Democrats have at some level unified government, it’s by the narrowest of margins, so part of what Biden will do will undoubtedly continue to be via executive orders as well. He’ll find it very difficult to govern purely legislatively, so I would not be at all surprised to see that, much like with President Obama, with President Trump, executive orders are going to be an important part of his governing apparatus.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is 82 years old. Do you expect Democrats to try to pressure him to retire so they can appoint someone while they control the Senate and presidency, so they don’t have a repeat of what occurred with former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something similar to what happened with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, where he basically said it’s time for me to retire and I’m going to go out when I know my party controls the presidency and the Senate, and can replace me with someone of a similar judicial philosophy. That said, certainly plenty of people called on then-Justice Ginsburg to retire in the early days of the Obama administration, once Democrats had control of the Senate, but she chose not to do that, so Supreme Court justices can be unpredictable.

How do you expect Biden, Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get along? They seem to all have similar political philosophies and outlooks, and have known each other for a long time.

Fundamentally, it’s just about the structural incentive that the three of them face, and they do face slightly different ones about what they’re going to pass, or what they think can pass and get achieved. But I would envision that they’ll outline a set of priorities that they can work on together that will be palatable to all of their caucuses, but it’s worth keeping in mind that because these are such narrow majorities, that’s going to limit some of what the Democrats can do. I suspect some of the really ambitious things are probably off the table, but I think there are more popular things, and those are things that they will be able to achieve.