Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia on Tuesday gives Democrats true control of the upper chamber of Congress, untethering Vice President Kamala Harris from Washington and easing a path to confirmation for President Joe Biden’s nominees as he seeks to bring historic diversity to the federal judiciary and executive branch.
Decision Desk HQ projects that Warnock, an Atlanta pastor who in 2021 became the first Black Democrat from the South elected to the Senate, successfully defended his seat from a challenge by Republican Herschel Walker, a former football star whose campaign has been plagued by personal scandals. Neither candidate reached 50 percent of the vote in November, triggering a runoff. The outcome of the election Tuesday night means Democrats have a 51-seat Senate majority, avoiding cementing the status quo — a 50-50 Senate run by a power-sharing agreement.
The current power-sharing agreement has at times allowed Republicans to block or slow down confirmation of White House nominees to the federal bench or to key executive branch roles. Democrats control the chamber thanks to Harris’ tie-breaking vote — which she casts often. But, for the first woman in the role in the nation’s history, breaking ties in the Senate has come at the expense of time spent elsewhere.
The 50-50 Senate split, which calls for even representation of both parties on committees, has slowed down confirmations by forcing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to push for floor votes on nominees that have deadlocked in committee.
It has also allowed Republicans to block markups of Biden’s nominees, the procedural step required before the candidates come to the Senate floor. Without Republicans present at a markup within the judiciary panel, for example, there is no quorum to advance the nominations onto the floor. Bypassing the committee requires 60 votes under the current rules, which presents another GOP roadblock for the 50-member Senate Democratic caucus.
Easing the confirmation process would help Biden reshape the federal courts with liberal judges, including record numbers of women judges, judges who are not White, judges with civil rights backgrounds and more. An August analysis by the Pew Research Center of Biden’s confirmed federal judges showed the president had appointed a record number of women and non-White judges to the federal bench. Three-quarters of Biden’s confirmed federal judges are women, and two-thirds are not White, according to the analysis.
“With two more years of a Senate Democratic majority we will build on our historic pace of judicial confirmations and ensure the federal bench better reflects the diversity of America,” Schumer said in a statement to NBC News.
In addition, 127 executive branch nominees are still pending before the Senate, according to a tracker of Biden nominees run by the Partnership for Public Service in collaboration with the Washington Post. Biden promised his administration would be the most diverse in the country’s history.
Biden told reporters last month that the extra seat the party might find in Georgia would make the biggest difference in his ability to advance his agenda.
“It’s always better with 51, because we’re in a situation where you don’t have to have an even makeup of the committees,” Biden said. “The bigger the numbers, the better.”
During a speech at South Carolina State University in September, Harris noted that she had broken John Adams’ record for casting the most tie-breaking votes in the Senate in a single term. Harris, who has cast more than two dozen tie-breaking votes, has largely celebrated this role reserved for her as president of the Senate. But, in a Senate where her party has an extra seat, Harris will be able to leave Washington, and the Senate chamber, more often.
Such freedom will allow Harris to more visibly exercise her role as vice president, particularly given her historic ascent as the first woman, the first Black American and the first South Asian American to be elected vice president.
A White House official said that casting tie-breaking votes has been important work for Harris, who herself is a former senator from California. They added that with some coordination with Senate leadership, Harris has been able to travel domestically and abroad – including a recent trip to Southeast Asia and visits to 17 states in the leadup to the midterm elections.
“She will continue to do the work that needs to get done, whether that means traveling around the country to advance the interests of the American people or internationally to restore American leadership abroad. If that means heading to the Senate, that’s what it will be,” said a White House official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Looking ahead to 2024
For Republicans, victory in Georgia wouldn’t have immediately changed their political calculus. But it would have advanced the party’s prospects of regaining the majority in 2024, making a favorable political landscape even more so.
In presidential election years, states tend to elect senators of the same party as their chosen candidate for president. The Republican presidential nominee has good odds of sweeping up three states that have Democratic senators whose seats are on the ballot: Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.
Winning in Georgia would help at least buffer Democrats, Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said before Tuesday.
“The Democrats are staring down the gun barrel of this really bad map in 2024,” said Kondik, adding that Democrats will be defending 23 seats, while Republicans will be defending 11 they’ve got any hope of keeping the Senate in 2024, they need this seat. And that’s what the Georgia runoff represents.”