Shortly after Vice President Kamala D. Harris took her oath of office, she swore in Democratic senators Alex Padilla, Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock, creating a 50-50 split between Democratic and Republican seats in the Senate.
According to the U.S. Constitution, when the Senate elections result in a tie between parties, the Vice President must cast the tie-breaking vote. With a Democrat-controlled Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York becomes the majority leader and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky becomes the minority leader. But, what does a Democrat-controlled Senate really mean?
The most immediate result of a Democratic Senate is the quick confirmation of President Joseph R. Biden’s cabinet appointees. All of his picks, including Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation and Merrick Garland as Attorney General, have their Senate hearings set, which guarantees them their spots. The confirmation of these officials only needs a simple majority of Senate votes.
As for legislation, Biden has announced his plans for bills and policies dealing with COVID-19 relief, longer-term spending and the environment. These policies have a better chance of materializing in a Democratic-controlled Senate, but they do still have a good chance of being blocked. In Congress, senators can pass a filibuster, meaning they can speak for as long as they wish on specific policies to delay legislation unless three-fifths of senators sign the legislation to block the plan.
With a small majority in the Senate, Democrats may have trouble passing bold economic spending plans. For example, Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief plan. The plan includes ways to increase vaccine distribution, assist families needing financial support and emergency funds for suffering small businesses and communities. The plan has garnered immense support among Democrats in the Senate, but has also received strong opposition from Republicans. If Senate Minority Leader McConnell announces his intent to filibuster the plan, the Democrats have two options: block the filibuster or pass it through a budget reconciliation process, which allows for the passage of certain kinds of legislation through a simple majority. The reconciliation process may act as Biden’s best chance at having his COVID-19 plan pass.
Even if Biden’s daring COVID-19 economic relief plan does not pass, other relief packages could. Congress recently passed a second relief package costing $908 billion, which extends unemployment benefits and provides more aid to struggling Americans. The federal government also sent another stimulus check of $600 to several Americans. With Schumer as the majority leader in the Senate, he has the opportunity to set the Senate agenda, bring legislation to the floor and force votes. Because of this, a third stimulus check could easily receive approval in the coming months to further help struggling Americans during this pandemic.
In his first days in office, Biden issued over 30 executive orders and actions. Some dealt with the environment, such as having the U.S. rejoin the Paris Agreement, while others dealt with immigration, such as reversing Trump’s restriction on U.S. entry for seven Muslim countries. Even with these first few executive orders, further legislation could also be debated and passed as Schumer sets the Senate agenda. In order to pass most of the legislation regarding these issues, some Republicans need to support them, which could pose some issues.
Overall, a Democratic-controlled Senate means that laws, acts and bills have a better chance of becoming laws. It does not guarantee that all policies favored and proposed by Democrats will pass. In reality, only time may tell what policies a Democratic-controlled Senate could pass.