Exterior view of the Russell Building at the U.S. Senate.
Outside the Russell Building at the U.S. Senate. With the upper chamber of Congress split 50-50 and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris only voting in the case of a tie, "party leaders will have to forge a power-sharing agreement," says VCU political science expert Alex Keena. (Getty Images)

Moderates are about to hold an ‘enormous amount of power’ in Washington, VCU expert says

Cooperation between Democrats and Republicans will be a necessity, especially in the Senate.

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This week, Congress affirmed the election of President-elect Joe Biden and Democrats won Senate seats in Georgia, ensuring that Democrats will control the legislative and executive branches for at least the next two years.

What can we expect from the new Democratic majority in Washington? Are major policy changes in store? Will we see any moves toward bipartisanship? And will there be lasting political impact from Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump?

Alex Keena, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, looks ahead to what is likely to occur in this new political landscape.

For the next two years, Democrats will hold the majority in both chambers of Congress and the White House. What policies in their agenda do you anticipate will be most likely to move forward?

Because the Democrats' majorities in Congress are razor thin, we will not see the ambitious, sweeping policy reforms that many progressives had hoped for. In the House, Democrats have only about a dozen seats to spare, which means the speaker cannot afford many defections from her caucus. She will prioritize legislation that unites the caucus, such as COVID-19 relief, health care and criminal justice reform.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are tied at 50 senators apiece. This means that party leaders will have to forge a power-sharing agreement between the two parties. Although Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gives the Democrats the edge, she will not sit in committees and her vote will only count when there is a tie. This makes cooperation between the parties a necessity to advance policy and to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to stop a filibuster.

As well, Democrats have moderate members, like Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who will oppose legislation that puts him at risk with his conservative constituency and who could be reluctant to support statehood for D.C. or Puerto Rico. The Democrats will need some support from Republicans and may reach out to “moderate” Republicans on policies that are popular with the public, like economic relief payments, criminal justice, student loan reforms, and perhaps even infrastructure, immigration, and health care.

How do you foresee the dynamics of the Democratic Party's different factions playing out? For example, do you see moderates playing a greater role?

The focus during the next two years will almost certainly be on the Senate. Because neither party has an advantage (except when legislation on the floor is tied), both parties will share power in the committee system. Democrats will need to reach out to less extreme Republican senators to get legislation out of committee. In this regard, “moderates,” like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin and perhaps Mitt Romney, will hold an enormous amount of power in determining whether legislation advances to the floor for a vote. In fact, any one senator can slow things down given the procedural rules of the Senate, so I expect that Republicans will seek to stall legislation as much as possible and things to move very slowly, as we saw under the Barack Obama administration.

Though they will control Congress and the White House, the Democratic majority will still face obstacles — such as the Supreme Court and the filibuster — to passing major legislation. Do you think Democrats will use their political capital to try to knock down some of those obstacles?

Because the Democrats only have 50 senators, it will be difficult if not impossible to stack the courts or abolish the filibuster, particularly since they would need everyone in their caucus to support such a measure, and some Democratic senators have signaled opposition to such a plan. In short, Democrats do not have a lot of political capital to spare, so they must be strategic about their priorities, as any defections within their party would be embarrassing and politically costly.

Do you expect the events of Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters broke into the Capitol, to have lasting effects on how the next two years will unfold politically?

One of the interesting consequences of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building is that the experience seems to have bonded Republican and Democratic members of the Senate, who were forced to evacuate the Senate chamber together. This shared trauma may foster a spirit of bipartisanship and shared sense of duty and purpose among lawmakers. This would make President-elect Biden’s job a bit easier.