Georgia runoff results elevate Warnock over Walker — and Manchin

President Lyndon Baines Johnson once crudely compared his experience as a member in both chambers of Congress by saying, “The difference between the Senate and the House is the difference between chicken salad and chicken s—.” That admonition by LBJ, a former Senate majority leader, is about to ring true on Capitol Hill in a slightly different form. The gain of one Senate seat for Democrats to give them a 51-seat majority will transform the party’s experience to one closer to chicken salad. 

That’s good news for pretty much every Democrat except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He didn’t lose as big as Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker did, but he will find his position significantly weakened.

Though the Democrats already have the majority, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, Sen. Raphael Warnock’s re-election in Georgia on Tuesday has transformed the party’s position from one of a bare-bones majority lacking legislative leverage to an emboldened one that will have more tools to enact President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The swath of new legislative and procedural benefits they’ll now receive also helps offset the loss of the House to Republicans in November. So, though Warnock’s victory might have seemed like the cherry on top of Democrats’ overperformance in the midterms, their achievement goes deeper.

That’s good news for pretty much every Democrat except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He didn’t lose as big as Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker did, but he will find his position significantly weakened. Manchin is the most conservative-leaning Democrat and has frequently held up Biden’s environmental proposals and big social spending packages. 

He got away with it because in a 50-50 Senate, Manchin had a ton of leverage and could force Senate Democratic leaders to make numerous concessions or else get nothing passed. Now even if he dissents on a given bill or nomination, Democrats most likely will still have 50 votes.

Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters during a vote at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 8. Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

A 51-49 Senate majority doesn’t completely quell Democratic headaches over having to corral their own. Like Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has bucked her Democratic colleagues. Sinema, for instance, only supported the Inflation Reduction Act — a key Biden administration priority — after Democratic leaders agree to remove a provision on closing the so-called carried interest tax loophole that enables wealthy hedge fund and investment managers to pay lower taxes. However, Sinema usually falls in line on substance, voting with the Biden administration 93% of the time. 

In other ways, the Democrats will enjoy even more clout. Under a 50-50 Senate, committees have evenly split memberships. Though one of Biden’s major priorities has been appointing federal judges, the Senate Judiciary Committee has until now frequently deadlocked on approving nominees, as Harris can only cast tie-breaking votes on floor votes, not in committees. So Democrats have had to take additional, time-consuming procedural steps on the Senate floor to get the nominee confirmed.

In a 51-49 Senate, Democrats also will have unilateral power to issue subpoenas. Democratic committee chairs, in the 50-50 Senate, have had to seek bipartisan support to issue subpoenas to compel witness testimony or the production of documents — such as those concerning efforts by former President Donald Trump and supporters to overturn Biden’s 2020 White House win. While the committee rules are different for each panel, most allow a simple majority of members or the chairman to issue subpoenas. 

Perhaps most significantly, a Senate panel can now continue the work of the House Jan. 6 committee, which is investigating the origins of and details about the attempted insurrection. The panel is expected to go out of business when the current Congress ends on Jan. 3 and Republicans take the reins of the House. 

A Democratic Senate will also have the power to investigate the former president himself. The Supreme Court recently rejected Trump’s last-ditch plea to block the release of his tax records to Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, and the documents have since been disclosed to the lawmakers. Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee could similarly request the Trump tax documents and, Supreme Court ruling in hand, obtain them like their House counterparts did.

Warnock’s win eases another longstanding concern among Democrats — that a single lawmaker’s health could jeopardize their hold on the chamber. If a Democratic senator in a 50-50 Senate dies, it potentially gives a Republican governor power to appoint a GOP replacement, ending the Democrats’ majority. 

That’s hardly an academic point, with the average senator’s age being 64.3 years, and several Democrats having a record of being away from the Capitol for weeks at a time with serious maladies. This year, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is 82, spent time in the hospital after surgery to replace a broken hip. He has had other illnesses that have sidelined him in the past. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, 50, a New Mexico Democrat, had a stroke and underwent brain surgery in late January. And Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, 63, also had a stroke, while delivering a speech in May.

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Each senator, thankfully, recovered and returned to work. Yet Leahy’s case in particular raised alarms for Democrats. Vermont has a Republican governor, Phil Scott, who would have made the decision on a replacement for the Democratic senator. Nor was it the first time that scenario had arisen. The state’s other senator, independent Bernie Sanders, then 78, had a heart attack while campaigning for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

This leaves Senate Democrats in a much rosier position concerning chickens and just about everything else.

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