By John Isaacs
Bulletin: January 20 update: On inauguration day, Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and the newly appointed Senator from California, Alex Padilla, to the Senate and control of the Senate has now switched to Democrats.
Lost in the turmoil over the violent insurrectionist attack of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was the momentous change in control of the U.S. Senate.
And that transformation can make an enormous difference on the ability of President-elect Joe Biden to enact major portions of his agenda and the arms control and peace community to make progress on its goals – cutting nuclear weapon arsenals, making smart reductions to the out-of-control military budget, ending the endless overseas wars, resurrecting arms control treaties, and combating climate change.
A pair of upset victories by Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, a state that had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years, has made all the difference. In the January 5 special election, Warnock won by about 89,000 votes out of 4.4 million cast and Ossoff won by about 50,000 votes. Georgia is on track to certify the election results by January 22, and Warnock and Ossoff should be sworn into the Senate shortly thereafter.
Their victories mean that for at least the next two years, the Senate will be divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris will be able to break the tie for the Democrats, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will replace Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader.
The power of the Senate Majority Leader is immense. Schumer will now decide which bills will be brought to the Senate floor for votes and which will be pigeonholed. McConnell was a master at thwarting votes on important issues and blocked many House-passed bills from ever being considered in the Senate.
A sign of the change: in 2016, McConnell blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court Justice for almost a year. With Schumer now in charge, Garland’s nomination for Attorney General should go through the Senate in short order. Other Biden nominees should also, hopefully, have a much easier time being confirmed than when Barack Obama became President in 2009.
For years, McConnell would schedule debate on major defense bills during which he would permit a week of desultory debate but block most significant issues from being brought to a vote. Defense appropriations bills often went directly to conference with the House rather than being considered on the Senate floor. This policy will hopefully change under Democratic control.
Arnold Punaro, the former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted, “Control of the flow is a huge advantage for the Biden Administration.”
There will be new chairs of Senate committees. Instead of conservative Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) as chair of the Armed Services Committee, moderate progressive Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) will take over. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) will replace Sen. James Risch (R-ID) as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will assume the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee from Sen. Rich Shelby (R-AL), although who will chair the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is not yet clear. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will now helm the Senate Budget Committee, where he will be in a position to push for defense cuts.
The four new chairs will be able to bring bills before their committees for votes and schedule key hearings. With Schumer as Majority Leader, it should be easier to press for floor votes on key issues.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-07), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, noted the new Senate majority will make a major difference when drafting the new National Defense Authorization Bill (NDAA), stating “I do think we will be able to get many of our objectives through in the next NDAA.”
Senate efforts in recent years to block a new low-yield nuclear weapon, implement no first use of nuclear weapons policy, repeal the outdated and abused 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, reduce the Pentagon budget, and protect nuclear arms control treaties have not gone as far as advocates have hoped.
With narrow majorities in both the Senate and the House, none of these goals will be easily achieved.
However, with a strong push from the Biden administration and Congressional Democratic leadership under Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there are definitely new opportunities for progress, both for the Biden social and economic agenda and on national security issues.
After four years of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, there will be the air of change in Congress starting January 20.