Post-election update: Republicans won most of the key Senate battles on Tuesday, setting up a scenario where a Republican majority will serve with President Trump. It is unclear the extent of the majority, since two races are currently unresolved. Regardless of the outcome of these races, Republicans will not have enough senators to defeat Democratic filibusters. That means Trump will have trouble getting his policies through this chamber if he does not work across party lines. Because Senate Republicans refused to hold a vote on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, it is likely that Trump will face a fight early in his term over filling this Supreme Court vacancy. The Senate is also likely to tackle an Obamacare repeal early in 2017. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be the majority leader and New York’s Chuck Schumer will be minority leader.
What will the U.S. Senate look like when new senators are sworn in on January 3, 2017?
The fate of Republican control of the Senate depends on how races turn out in a few states, such as North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Democrats need to pick up four seats now held by Republicans (Tim Kaine, as vice president, would break any tie in a Senate divided 50-50 between the two parties). A Donald Trump win would mean that the Democrats need to gain five seats.
Because of the Senate’s rules and traditions, a switch in partisan control does not bring a major swing in policy direction. That is especially true in an evenly-divided Senate or one where a party has narrow majority. To advance a bill that has even a hint of controversy requires that the majority leader must find a super-majority. That is because a cloture motion, or motion to cut off debate on legislation, requires 60 votes.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is likely to be the majority leader if the Democrats take control of the Senate, and the minority leader if they don’t. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is almost certain to remain majority leader if his party retains control, but be demoted to minority leader if the Democrats prevail in enough close races to take the Senate.
Under a Clinton presidency, a Democratic Senate majority would not have a free hand to push through whatever legislation they favor. Even if they are in the minority, Republicans will have enough seats to block legislation and nominees through a filibuster. The reverse holds true for a Republican majority during a Trump administration. For a bill to emerge from the Senate, it takes bipartisan cooperation. Given this year’s election, that is likely to be in short supply no matter who sits in the White House.
The next president’s term could also see an end to the tradition that Supreme Court nominees are not filibustered. Republicans have already signaled that they may block any Clinton nominee to the high court, and Democrats may do the same under President Trump.
It is unclear how a Senate with a Republican majority would work under a Trump presidency. Some Republican senators, such as Jeff Flake from Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have openly rejected the GOP nominee. Others have wavered in their support of him. Would these senators feel party loyalty to President Trump, or would they feel free to oppose him when he is office just as they oppose him on the campaign trail? A Democratic majority under a Trump presidency would ensure numerous roadblocks for any legislative proposal that may come from the White House.
Regardless of which party holds power, some senators in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have said they would work with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders (who is an independent, but who caucuses with the Democrats) to push what they call a “progressive agenda” of a higher minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and a focus on the environment. These liberal senators have said that even under a Clinton presidency, they may oppose cabinet nominees who they view as too cozy with business.
Given the unpredictable nature of this election, no one can make a solid bet about which party will end up in control of the Senate in January 2017. Only once the votes are counted on Election Day will we know for sure.
What initiatives do you think senators should pursue next year?