With the party’s midterm victories, Senate Democrats have officially gained control of their chamber for the next Congress, but it’s now in the hands of Georgia voters to determine how powerful their majority will be and how much of a difference Democrats can make. to advance President Joe Biden’s agenda.
When Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., was forecast to be the winner late Saturday in her close race against Republican nominee Adam Laxalt, she secured a 50th seat from the Democrats and secured it with Vice President Kamala Harris’s landmark vote for Die Democrats would remain in control.
But Democrats are holding their breath for the December 6 Georgia runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican nominee Herschel Walker. Because a majority of 51 seats would make governing much easier.
At the same time, Republicans are trying to even the score in Georgia’s midterm elections — to keep the Senate in its current 50-50 power-sharing arrangement.
“As Herschel [Walker] wins, we’re going to have a 50/50 Senate,” Republican Senate Committee Chairman Rick Scott told reporters in Georgia Monday. “Right now it would be better to read 51, 52, 53, but if he wins we’ll be able to block some bad laws because it takes more than 51 to do those things,” Scott said.
Democrats are doing everything they can to reach 51.
“It’s obvious that 51 is better than 50,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said during an appearance on CNN Monday.
One important reason: judges.
Judge nominees are easier to confirm
Confirming Biden-nominated judges is a top priority for Democrat leadership, especially after the Supreme Court, dominated by conservative Republican-nominated judges, showed the power of the judiciary by overturning Roe’s abortion right earlier this year v. Wade lifted.
Democrats have sought to counter the Supreme Court by filling the lower courts with more liberal justices — and because confirming it is one of the few things that can be done in the Senate with a simple majority, Senate Democrats acted quickly and confirmed a record 84 Biden-nominated judges during the president’s first two years in office.
But a 51-seat majority could allow Democrats to get judges through the Senate confirmation process even faster.
With 50 senators on each side, Senate committees are currently split evenly. Republicans can block Biden’s judge nominee on the Judiciary Committee, forcing an additional vote in the Senate.
It amounts to a procedural error, but it can tie up the Senate for days.
“It just slows down the process,” Justice Chairman Dick Durbin said Monday. “If we were 51-49 it would be a much better situation.”
With 51 members, Democrats could delete the nominees without that extra step, giving them more time to work on even more nominees or other legislation they want to put to a vote.
And the benefit of a committee majority extends to other legislative priorities that are stuck in committee. With 51 seats, Democrats would have the upper hand if they took their legislation out of committee and put it to the vote.
The Democrats would also have a little more security if a vacancy on the Supreme Court should become vacant in the next two years.
Candidates for the Supreme Court
Had Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell taken control of the chamber, he wasn’t sure he would have allowed the Senate to even consider one of Biden’s nominees for the country’s highest court, what with the would have broken precedent.
Now that Schumer is in charge, it’s almost certain that any vacancy could be filled by a Biden candidate, even if a Democrat decides to defect.
But 51 seats frees Democrats to have a single dissenter on all kinds of legislation, not just Supreme Court nominees. As such, the Democratic leadership is seeking an extra seat in part because it would drain the concentrated power that the party’s left and right have enjoyed for the past two years.
51 votes give the Democrats room to negotiate
During that time, the 50-strong majority has called for Schumer to include his conference, which ranges from conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., to progressive independents like Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He couldn’t afford a single dissenter.
This made Manchin very influential in the 50-50 Senate. His decision to withhold support for Biden’s cornerstone “Build Back Better” agenda threw out the bill last winter as Democrats were unable to move forward without unanimous support from their conference.
His move infuriated grassroots Democrats. But it ultimately got him a direct seat at the negotiating table with Schumer, who was desperate to gain his support. The anti-inflation law, which was passed this summer, was largely drafted by the two in private talks.
Sanders threatened for a time to sink a separate bill because it included a provision attached by Schumer to appease Manchin. As the two men closed the horns, the government headed for a shutdown. Manchin finally gave in.
Schumer’s back-and-forth with Manchin was necessitated by the evenly divided Senate. But 51 votes buy leeway. And it has the potential to limit Manchin’s influence, or that of any other senator.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t other members, like Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who could break with the party line and cause headaches. But it gives a little more breathing room for the Democratic leadership, who will be keen to force Republicans to crush Biden’s policies ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
ABC News’ Trish Turner contributed to this report.