Tom Cotton and David Perdue were both elected to the United States Senate in 2014, Cotton from Arkansas and Perdue from Georgia. As Republicans, all they knew during the last six years was a Senate majority.
Sen. Cotton’s task now is to become accustomed to serving in the minority. Perdue doesn’t have a task.
It was Perdue’s recent reelection loss, along with that of fellow Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, that gave control of the chamber back to Democrats. With unified Democratic government, change is a-coming.
For three Congresses, Sen. Mitch McConnell served as majority leader, which first empowered him to check former President Obama’s administration and to control his judicial nominees, and later to marshal through Republican priorities like tax cuts and to elevate President Trump’s judge picks. McConnell had a chance to reprise his role during the latter years of the Obama-Biden administration.
Now, with New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer poised to become majority leader, the chamber is about to start making a 180-degree turn.
Schumer sent a letter to his Senate colleagues on Tuesday looking forward, outlining his caucus’s priorities with the “first order of business” being more coronavirus relief.
“As you know from our work at the end of the last Congress, the job of COVID emergency relief is far from complete,” the letter says. “Democrats wanted to do much more in the last bill and promised to do more, if given the opportunity, to increase direct payments to a total of $2,000 — we will get that done.”
It’s not where the Republican Caucus is, nor where it would have been had it maintained control. A handful of Senate Republicans supported the $2,000 total alongside President Trump (though two of them aren’t serving anymore, and the incentive to align with Trump has all but dissolved). McConnell wasn’t one of them, and having blocked the $2,000 provision, he said it didn’t have a chance at passing. He also called it “socialism for rich people.”
In general, Republicans have prioritized keeping spending down with regard to coronavirus relief, their arguments being that Congress has already appropriated plenty of money to deal with the crisis and, as some have said, that state and local governments do not deserve “bailouts” from the federal government.
Schumer, on the other hand, writes of giving more help to state and local governments in his letter, and Democrats showed throughout relief negotiations stretching back through the summer that they see more of a risk in not spending big.
Aside from that first order of business, Senate leadership’s legislative priorities will change dramatically. “The climate crisis, and worsening income inequality and racial injustice” are some of the “unprecedented challenges” that the nation faces, in Schumer’s judgment.
Obviously, Republicans don’t share a vision with Democrats on the climate and on energy, nor on the sources of or solutions to income inequality. They also shape up the issue of racial injustice differently, though it wouldn’t be right to say they disregard it.
The Republican Senate tried to act on such injustice in June. After George Floyd’s death, Republican Sen. Tim Scott spearheaded an effort at police reform, though it failed without Democratic support. Ultimately, Republicans and Democrats frame the issue differently. Republicans generally frame it as, “Yes, there is ongoing injustice that must be dealt with, but America has come a long way and law enforcement is mostly good.” Democrats see it as, “Injustice remains the default in every institution.” It could be a healthier tension, if so many didn’t view the issue as “unprecedented.” (It’s senseless, really, to call racial injustice “unprecedented,” considering our national history.)
Finally, under Republican rule, ending the legislative filibuster was not on the table. Now, it is.
“When and where we can, we will strive to make this important work bipartisan,” Schumer writes in the letter. “The Senate works best when we are working together with our Republican colleagues. However, if our Republican colleagues decide not to partner with us in our efforts to address these issues, we will not let that stop progress.”
Ending the 60-vote threshold is effectively the only way to shut out Republican dissent in any final sense. Democrats usually float abolishing the filibuster when the room gets really heated, like when Trump elevated Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the twilight of his first term.
Schumer now uses it for leverage, but not all Democrats are committed to what would be a sweeping change to the Senate, and he would need them all.
Republicans are set to forfeit their six-year rule over the Senate chamber. The Democrats’ margin will be as slim as it can be. Depending on the task, to accomplish anything, they will have to garner Republican support, or vote as a perfect block with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking the tie, or shut out Republicans altogether.
It will be an occasion either for bipartisanship or for more institutional decay.