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What’s the Senate’s political outlook?

BACKGROUNDER | Expectations for Congress’ upper chamber for the next two years

Sen. Raphael Warnock Elijah Nouvelage/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s the Senate’s political outlook?
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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s election runoff victory in Georgia on Dec. 6 helped Democrats scrape together enough midterm wins to secure a 51-49 Senate majority for the next session of Congress. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s dramatic exit from the party made waves on three days later, but the transition might not spell a sea change in the next Congress. Sinema, typically a dependable Democratic vote, says she still plans to caucus with her former party. 

Over the next two years, Democrats will try to ram through President Joe Biden’s agenda, but Republican control of the House of Representatives will likely frustrate that goal. Here’s what to expect from Congress’ upper chamber.

How strong is the Democratic majority? To overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, Democrats still need to convince nine Republicans to support their bills. They could use a workaround known as reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority vote. But that ­procedure only applies to certain ­legislation and is subject to the Senate parliamentarian’s approval. Other Democratic headaches: Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have often voted against big-spending, Biden-endorsed legislation. Assuming Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York retains his leadership position as expected, he will likely focus on finding common ground with his two problematic caucus members.

But the party in power is more on edge now with three independents, Sinema, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Angus King, Jr.  of Maine. If only one of them opposes a Democratic-sponsored bill, the party will again rely on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. If two or more cross the aisle, the advantage will be lost in any simple majority vote.

So why did Sinema declare as an independent? She’s likely looking toward the future. The high profile Arizona lawmaker faces reelection in 2024 in what is quickly becoming a battleground state. With players like Rep. Ruben Gallego on the horizon—the congressman said he will consider whether to challenge Sinema for her seat with his family over the holidays—registering as an independent likely protects her during a primary election, guaranteeing a split ticket even if Gallego or another Democrat earns the nomination. According to state election law, an independent candidate does not need as many signatures to ensure a spot on the primary ballot as a partisan candidate does. If Sinema can pull enough Democratic votes her way, it will dilute party influence in the purple state.

What will change on Capitol Hill? Nothing much, Schumer hopes. According to the New York Democrat, Sinema asked him if she could keep her committee assignments when she informed him of her decision. He said he readily agreed. But he also didn’t really have a choice. Of paramount importance for the majority leader right now is a shakeup in committees. As an independent, Sinema will no longer attend caucus lunches, but word on the hill is that she’s been skipping those anyway.

“Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” Schumer said in a statement. “I believe she’s a good and effective senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”

What does Sinema say? For her part, Sinema says her realignment more accurately represents her state and that she wants to get back to civility in the public square.

“Americans are more united than the national parties would have us believe,” Sinema wrote in an op-ed published Friday in the Arizona Republic. “Arizonans—including many registered as Democrats or Republicans—are eager for leaders who focus on common-sense solutions rather than party doctrine.”

So, what types of bills can we expect from the new Congress? Party leaders will likely struggle to pass any controversial legislation through both chambers, including pro-life bills that House Republicans might push forward. Instead, legislative efforts will likely center on must-pass funding packages such as the federal budget bill. If lawmakers can find a budgetary justification, they can add pet policies—sometimes called “Christmas tree amendments”—and hang them on appropriations bills. Senate Democrats will continue to advance confirmation of Biden’s ­judicial appointments and plan to scrutinize what they see as under­regulated industries such as Big Tech and cryptocurrency.

Where will the negotiating happen? Inside committees, where much of Congress’ behind-the-scenes dealing occurs. The Senate’s 24 committees each has had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to represent the chamber’s 50-50 split. With Warnock retaining his seat, however, the ratio can shift in favor of the Democrats. Committees with even a one-vote Democratic majority will be able to issue subpoenas without Republican support.

Who has the most clout? Longtime Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is retiring and passing the baton of leadership over the Senate Appropriations Committee to Patty Murray of Washington. Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is slated to become the committee’s ranking member. These two women, along with their House committee counterparts, are viewed as the “four corners” of congressional leadership. Both appropriations committees will determine what funding is provided and what policy riders will get attached.

Editor’s note: This is an expanded and updated version of the Backgrounder that appeared in the Dec. 24, 2022, print issue.


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