Swing Voters Will Rule in a Split Senate



Now that Democrat Raphael Warnock has won a U.S. Senate seat in Tuesday’s Georgia runoffs, with Democrat Jon Ossoff close to gaining the state’s other seat, the balance of power in the chamber tilts toward its most conservative Democrats, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Jon Tester of Montana.

President-elect Joe Biden will need each of their votes—just as President Trump needed the votes of the least conservative Republicans in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

If Ossoff wins, there will be a 50-50 split, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaking vote for the Democrats. But Harris’s ability to win votes for Biden assumes that every Democrat—and independent caucusing with the Democrats—votes with the party. Any legislation that Manchin, Sinema, or Tester finds distasteful has little chance of passage. Others who might resist some progressive measures include Mark Kelly of Arizona, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

“They will be deciding and determining the agenda,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

Centrist Republican senators including Murkowski and Collins will also continue to have the extra measure of influence that comes with being a swing voter, says Stephen Stanley, chief economist of Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC, a fixed-income broker-dealer. Collins and Murkowski “could offer themselves up as a safer margin on certain things in return for whatever pet projects they have in mind,” Stanley says. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah could also be a swing voter sought after by Biden.

Even if the Democrats win both Senate seats in Georgia, Biden’s ability to get things donewill be limited because the filibuster ruleeffectively requires 60 votes for most legislation. The exceptions that can be passed with simple majorities include judicial and cabinet appointments and three pieces of budget-related legislation per year. Democrats could kill the filibuster with a parliamentary maneuver known colloquially as the nuclear option, but Manchin, for one, has said he wouldn’t go along with that.

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