Read: Georgia’s billion-dollar bonfire
Even though Ossoff has pulled off the win, the Democrats’ Senate majority will be razor-thin. Such a narrow margin won’t allow progressives to achieve their dream of killing the filibuster and its 60-vote threshold. Nor will it allow them to expand the Supreme Court and overtake the conservatives’ 6–3 advantage. One Democrat alone could nix those ideas, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the party’s most conservative member, has ruled out supporting either move.
So on most legislation, Biden will have to find at least 10 Republicans—one out of every five in the Senate—to vote alongside Democrats. Biden’s first inclination might be to go around McConnell and strike agreements with bipartisan groups, such as the coalition whose $908 billion proposal formed the basis for the latest round of COVID-19 relief. “That’s his comfort zone,” Jim Manley, a former Senate aide who advised the late Ted Kennedy and then–Majority Leader Harry Reid, told me. But he’d still need the support of at least 10 Republicans and every Democrat to reach 60 votes and defeat a filibuster. There are only so many moderates like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska still serving in the Senate. “There’s no going around McConnell,” Coons said with a chuckle.
Democrats might get one shot to pass a major bill without Republican votes by using the annual budget process known as reconciliation, which isn’t subject to a filibuster. Reconciliation helped Democrats enact parts of the Affordable Care Act and Republicans approve the Trump tax cuts on party-line votes. But the procedure is limited to policies tied to taxes and spending, and just getting 50 Democrats on board would be a heavy lift: They’d have to write an enormous legislative package that both Manchin, a fiscal hawk, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist, can support. “It’s a relatively challenging and painful process,” Coons said. “So I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to get done through that vehicle.”
Biden’s best hope—a long shot, perhaps—is that the most significant effect of the Georgia victories won’t be the Senate majority itself, but the jolt it could send through the Republican Party. The runoff elections were inseparable from the parallel effort, stoked by Trump and backed by more than a quarter of the Senate GOP in defiance of McConnell’s wishes, to challenge the certification of Biden’s victory. I spoke with Coons before the polls closed, and he sounded nearly distraught at this development, which he’d found inconceivable even a few weeks ago. “If the people of Georgia send a signal by the outcome of this election that they’re not going to continue to reward blindly following that kind of behavior, I think that’s a good thing,” Coons said. “And I think that sends a signal to Republicans that they may need to recalibrate how closely they’re following Trump and listening to his rhetoric in the months and years ahead.”
Manley, who told me there was “a partisan poison seeping through the Senate,” was more doubtful that the Georgia losses would result in a GOP epiphany. And he cast the ultimate impact of the hard-fought, costly Democratic success that will dethrone McConnell and recapture the majority in a humbler light. “It puts you on the field in a good position,” Manley said. “It doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.”