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Biden’s potential first hurdle in office: a hostile US Senate

By AFP - Nov 08,2020 - Last updated at Nov 08,2020

Supporters of Joe Biden celebrate at the famous rainbow intersection on Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s ambitious presidential plans — including COVID-19 relief and climate action, not to mention naming a Cabinet — rest largely on Congress, where a Senate under potential Republican control could throw a political spanner in the works.

Should Democrats fulfill the Herculean task of snatching two Senate seats in twin runoffs next January in traditionally conservative Georgia, they would flip the chamber and provide Biden a considerably smoother path on multiple fronts.

But if the 77-year-old moderate begins his first term with a Democratic-led House and the Senate remaining in Republican hands, the opposition party, led by ruthless Senate tactician Mitch McConnell, would have the power to limit who the new president appoints to his Cabinet and what bills get to the president’s desk.

Positions like US secretary of state, Pentagon chief, and attorney general require Senate confirmation, as do federal judges and, notably, justices to the US Supreme Court.

An incoming commander-in-chief often enjoys a honeymoon period in which he can expend political capital on his nominees and top priorities.

But experts say Biden, who has decades of Washington experience, first as a US senator for 36 years and then eight years as vice president, should prepare for a wake-up call if he bumps up against Republican intransigence in these polarized times.

“He needs to have a rendezvous with reality,” John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, told AFP. “There are limits on what he can get.”

A Republican-led Senate theoretically would be able to block any nominee Biden puts forward, but at least one Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, expressed openness to finding “common ground” with Biden to get his inner circle confirmed.

“The vice president deserves a Cabinet,” Graham told reporters on Friday.

Getting major legislation passed could be a headache in a split Congress.

And with Republicans buoyed by their House gains in this election and with an eye on seizing the chamber in the 2022 midterms, they will have every incentive to raise hurdles for a Biden administration.


‘Save the Senate, save America’ 


Under that pressure, party leaders and the Georgia candidates themselves presented the southern state as the new ground zero in a war to either clear a congressional path to help Biden implement proposed reforms, or put a check on Trump’s successor.

Had Trump won reelection, Democrats would have needed to gain four seats in the Senate — where Republicans currently enjoy a 53-47 majority — as the vice president, as president of the Senate, breaks a 50-50 tie.

Instead, they need three. With Democrats sitting on a one-seat election net gain, Georgia’s runoffs are positively crucial for both parties.

“We win these two races, we save the Senate,” Senator David Perdue, a Republican in one of the Georgia runoffs, tweeted on Saturday. “We save the Senate, we save the country. This is what is at stake.”

Biden’s first legislative test will be maneuvering a coronavirus rescue package onto his desk.

McConnell refused to consider House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s $3 trillion behemoth, which cleared her chamber in May. It would have funded local government anti-pandemic efforts and sent unemployment payments to millions of Americans.

Subsequent efforts to pass smaller COVID-relief packages collapsed, but with daily coronavirus cases now spiking and fears of soaring death tolls in the coming winter months, the pressure is on to reach a deal.

How to achieve that? Biden “needs to do old-fashioned horse trading”, said Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor.

It is a role Biden, who has a deeper relationship with Congress than any president since Lyndon Johnson more than 50 years ago, has embraced before.

Biden prides himself on reaching across the aisle, as he did during a 2012 fiscal impasse ahead of a year-end deadline. When McConnell phoned him up in the White House, the old friends thrashed out an agreement.

But Pitney said Biden should not expect quick-and-easy deals with Republicans, especially after the tumultuous and hyper-partisan Trump era.

McConnell “is not going to give Biden any freebies because of friendship”, Pitney said. “McConnell doesn’t work that way.”


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