October 25, 2020

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What Happens If Democrats Win the Senate and the White House?

But far and away the most serious threat to the effectiveness of a Biden presidency and a Democratic House and Senate is the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 senators, instead of a simple majority of 51, to move forward on most legislation. Even if Democrats win the Senate in November, they very likely won’t have 60 votes, meaning that Republicans could still block legislation from being debated. Progressives have long wanted to abolish the supermajority voting threshold, but the idea has begun to gain traction among other Democrats, too, in recent weeks. Perhaps, some Democrats argue, the filibuster is a natural place to launch their democracy-reform initiative: They can put forward a slew of policies strengthening ethics guidelines and expanding voting rights—including a bill that would restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and dare Republicans to vote against it. (The VRA had strong bipartisan support until the mid-2000s.) “It’s a pretty easy argument to make,” the aide to the centrist senator told me. “Democrats would be happy to be like, Look at these fuckin’ guys! They still want to make it difficult for people of color to vote!

Progressives are enthusiastic about that plan. “If I had to guess how it’s going to happen, it’s going to be, If we can’t pass the VRA, we’re going to get rid of the filibuster,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “Starting with H.R. 1 is a good idea,” Representative Ro Khanna of California told me. “The filibuster could come right next.”

Then again, Democrats might not have any of these options in January. Trump could win the election; Republicans could hold the Senate or even win control of the House. The Democrats could sweep, but have something else at top of mind. Or, some of my Hill sources suggested, Biden may want to start off his first term by pursuing legislation that is more amenable to Republicans, though none of the aides I spoke with could identify what that unifying project might be. When asked about Biden’s own legislative priorities, a campaign spokesperson responded that his No. 1 goal will be “repairing and rebuilding from the economic ruin and public-health crisis caused by Donald Trump’s utter failure to fulfill his basic duty as president: protect America.”

Even if they win full control, though, Democrats won’t have a lot of time. As my colleague Ronald Brownstein noted recently, “the last four times a president—of either party—went into a midterm with unified control, voters have revoked it. … No party has controlled all the levers of government for more than four consecutive years since 1968.” And a President Biden and an incoming Democratic Congress will be facing a mountain of tasks. There will almost certainly be early battles over government funding and coronavirus-response packages.

If Democrats find themselves in the majority again for the first time in more than a decade, though, they are determined not to squander the opportunity. In his July eulogy for Representative John Lewis, Obama implored lawmakers to quickly make changes that protect and expand the right to vote—not for partisan advantage, he insisted, but in an effort to form a more perfect union. Republicans remain skeptical. But Democrats were listening.

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Elaine Godfrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers politics.

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