Analysis

Biden’s Big Day: Senate Control And Support From Pence and McConnell

In response, pro-Trump protesters storm the Capitol, forcing Congress into recess.

This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden rallies with Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden rallies with Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff the day before his and the Rev. Raphael Warnock's runoff election, in Atlanta on Jan. 4. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even as U.S. President Donald Trump continued to rail angrily at the election results at a rally outside, President-elect Joe Biden enjoyed a series of major victories on Wednesday that will likely accelerate the departure of Trump, if not Trumpism, from the scene. 

But it clearly wasn’t going quietly. After it became obvious that Trump’s effort to derail the electoral college vote would fail, pro-Trump protesters marched on the Capitol building, overwhelming police barricades, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to evacuate and putting the House and Senate into temporary recess. Protesters appeared to easily overwhelm Capitol Police, some of whom drew their weapons, and entered the chamber itself. Many people were injured and one woman was shot dead.

But by Wednesday morning, based on the outcome of the two tight Senate runoff races in Georgia, it became clear that Biden and the Democrats would control not only the White House and House of Representatives but the Senate as well, allowing him to advance some of his ambitious domestic and foreign agenda. Meanwhile, Pence ended any suspense about whether he would do Trump’s bidding and try to halt the electoral certification process. Biden was ultimately confirmed as the president-elect in the early hours of Thursday.

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence said in a statement outside the Capitol Wednesday as the formal vote got underway. 

Pence thus directly rebuked his president, who had declared at a rally earlier in front of the White House: “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.” In fact, constitutionally Pence’s role in the count of electoral votes was largely ceremonial. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also strongly opposed an effort by a minority of Senate and House Republicans to stop the electoral certification, including a proposal to set up a commission to investigate voter fraud.

In Georgia meanwhile, the Rev. Raphael Warnock was declared the winner in his runoff race against Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, while another Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, was later deemed the winner over Republican David Perdue. Those upset victories created a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris supplying the tie-breaking vote—giving the Democrats a slim majority in the upper chamber.

That outcome in turn raised hopes that Biden may have a chance of enacting some key parts of his domestic agenda, including his plans for imposing new taxes on the wealthy, expanding earned income tax credits for the elderly, and delivering other new tax credits. He also intends  to overturn Republican-orchestrated cuts to the corporate tax rate and estate tax. 

Even so the new president will face Republican filibusters on many of these issues, which under current rules requires a 60 vote majority to close debate.  Though Biden was highly regarded as a deft deal-maker during his 36 years on Capitol Hill—he will be the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson to have spent most of his political career in the Senate and has long worked with McConnell—he will almost certainly run into stern opposition from a Republican Party that is habitually loath to raise taxes. If McConnell takes the leadership post again, Biden will also run into a great deal of trouble confirming judges—an issue on which McConnell is particularly obstructionist—and possibly some of his cabinet nominees.

Beyond that, the Senate has become a very different and far more polarized place than when Biden had his heyday there, often winning Republican support as chairman or ranking member of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, for example on NATO expansion and criminal justice reform, in the 1980s and ’90s.

“If anybody can do it, Biden can. He always worked really hard to get along with the other side,” said Kay King, who was his foreign-policy advisor in the late 1980s. “But I’m cautiously pessimistic. A few Republicans may defect, but I don’t think it will be necessarily on major issues. The Senate is so polarized and driven by money, and if McConnell puts his foot down as he did with [former President Barack] Obama and says we’re going to do everything we can to defeat this person, then he’s going to have trouble. Remember, the last thing the Republicans want is to see Kamala Harris get elected president.”

Even so, over the past four years the Senate Republicans have been more willing to challenge President Donald Trump on foreign-policy issues—and thus may end up being more receptive to Biden’s plans, especially when it comes to restoring relations with U.S. allies that have been so damaged during the Trump years. 

“The Republican Senate is widely regarded as having bucked Trump on foreign policy more than anything, for example in supporting sanctions on Russia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton administration official and the author of Primary Politics. And both Republicans and Democrats are somewhat united on getting tougher on trade, security, and human rights issues with America’s chief global rival, China.

Beyond that, the Republican caucus in the Senate appears to be in disarray at the moment, with even deeply conservative senators and erstwhile Trump allies like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying they oppose the president’s efforts to overturn the election by repeating unfounded claims of voter fraud. 

Only last week the Senate overwhelmingly overrode Trump’s veto of a $741 billion defense bill, voting 81 to 13 to enact the annual National Defense Authorization Act. And though many of the outgoing president’s policies will be hard to overturn, some Senate Republicans have been increasingly willing to defy him on various issues, including Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Late last week Sasse, in comments on social media, sternly rebuked Trump and senators and House members who support the president’s attempt to decertify the election in a vote scheduled for Wednesday, calling it a “dangerous ploy.”

“There are actually a few points of general agreement on foreign policy between Biden and the Republicans,” said another former Biden Senate aide, Michael Haltzel. “First is repairing the damage to NATO done by Trump.  Second is countering an aggressive China, albeit in a more sophisticated and multilateral way than Trump.  Similarly, a third is continuing—even ramping up where necessary—opposition to Vladimir Putin’s pugnacious policies, including beefing up U.S. cyber-defenses and increasing American engagement in the Western Balkans.”

Even so, he said, Biden will run into a Republican wall if he attempts to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal rejected by Trump or take more aggressive action on climate change, although the incoming president won’t need Senate approval to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which he has said he will do.

When it comes to trade issues, Biden will likely have more problems with some of his fellow Democrats in the progressive camp than with many Republicans who still support free trade. During the primaries the president-elect, once a firm free-trade advocate, was forced to retreat on unpopular trade pacts like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which progressive Democrats viewed as unfair giveaways to multinational corporations and short on labor and environmental rights.

As Obama’s vice president, Biden supported the TPP, which Democratic centrists and many Republicans saw as an effective way of coercing China into changing its open defiance of World Trade Organization rules regarding issues such as intellectual property and product dumping. Trump withdrew from the TPP as one of his first acts in office and launched a unilateral trade war against Beijing, to little effect. 

But on the 2020 campaign trail Biden changed his tune dramatically in response to progressive and populist demands, saying that if he sought to reenter the TPP, he would renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States. In any case, he said, he wanted to focus on a $400 billion “Buy America” plan before any new trade deal.

Similarly, on nuclear arms reduction, Biden would likely be able to win over some Republicans who opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces pact and his failure to work to extend the New START treaty.

Trump’s fumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the increasing chaos coming out of the White House, has also made a number of Republicans vulnerable in the next election. That in turn indicates Biden may have more maneuvering room on bipartisan issues such as infrastructure refurbishment, additional coronavirus-related relief, and aid to state and local governments.

This article was updated Wednesday, Jan. 6 to reflect the Senate races and vote count on Capitol Hill.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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