Democrats retain control of the Senate after Nevada win: What does this mean for Biden?

For the president, retaining the upper house is not only a great political triumph; it also has practical consequences in terms of ratifying appointments and passing legislation

US midterm elections
US President Joe Biden makes a statement about the midterm elections on Sunday.KEVIN LAMARQUE (REUTERS)

After days of uncertainty following the US midterm elections, the Democrats have retained control of the US Senate. On Saturday, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto beat her Republican rival Adam Laxalt, to win the coveted Senate seat in Nevada. Cortez Masto, the only Latina in the Senate, defeated Laxalt, an ardent Trump supporter, thanks to tens of thousands of mail ballots that were counted on Saturday. Under Nevada law, the state must accept ballots postmarked by election day if they arrive up to four days later. Cortez Masto’s victory was called by Associated Press, and reported by TV networks CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS.

The win in Nevada means that the Democrats now hold a 50-49 edge in the upper house. The final composition of the Senate will be decided after the runoff vote in Georgia, which is scheduled to take place on December 6. But even if Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock loses to Herschel Walker, who was hand-picked by Trump, the Senate would be evenly split 50-50. And in the event of a tied vote, Vice President Kamala Harris has the decisive tie-breaking vote that can favor the Democrats.

“I feel good, and I’m looking forward to the next couple of years,” said US President Joe Biden on Sunday, speaking of the Democrats’ victory in Nevada. For the president, retaining the Senate is not only a great political triumph; it also has immediate practical consequences in terms of ratifying appointments, legislation and government oversight.

The Senate has the power to ratify or vote on the appointments of numerous senior government officials and federal judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court. When Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, then-president Barack Obama did not have control of the Senate and was therefore not able to appoint Merrick Garland (now attorney general) to the Supreme Court. This allowed Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, to appoint a conservative judge. No new appointments are expected to be made in the next two years, but if the need arises, Biden will be able to choose the justice.

Biden does, however, plan to appoint more federal judges. In fact, if the Democrats had lost control of the upper house, the party was considering covering all possible vacancies before the elected senators took office.

Members of the government, heads of federal agencies and ambassadors also need to be confirmed by the Senate to take office. What’s more, the Senate has the power to approve articles of impeachment sent by the House of Representatives. However, in this case, two-thirds of the Senate must approve the measure, meaning even if the Democrats had lost a few seats in the upper house, it is unlikely the Republicans would have reached this threshold.

Laws must be approved by both houses, and many of them also require the support of three-fifths of the Senate, the equivalent of 60 votes, to stop a filibuster. This is a tactic used to delay or block a vote by preventing debate on the measure from ending. Debate can only be limited by invoking a procedure known as “cloture,” which must be backed by 60 senators.

House of Representatives

With control of the Senate secured, the Democrats are now waiting to see if they will retain a majority in the House of Representatives – an outcome that appears unlikely, but has not been ruled out yet. If the Democrats took control of both chambers, Biden has suggested he would change filibuster rules to protect access to abortion, which now depends on the states after the landmark ruling Roe vs Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court.

“I believe we have to codify Roe v. Wade into law,” he said in June. “And the way to do that is to make sure that Congress votes to do that. And if the filibuster gets in the way, it should be we provide an exception for this.”

Other laws do not require 60 votes in the Senate. Biden, for example, was able to pass his flagship Inflation Reduction Act with a simple majority.

By retaining control of the Senate, the Democrats are in a much stronger position, even if they lose control of the House. The party will be able to block Republican legislative initiatives without Biden having to constantly invoke the presidential veto. And, they will have more margin to win over Republican House members for specific projects.

Biden, however, added on Sunday that “it’s always better with 51″ senators. The Democrats could win this number if Georgia Senator Warnock triumphs at the runoff in December. This would give the Democrats a majority in Senate commissions, which, in turn, would streamline the legislative process and the processing of appointments. Having more numbers in the Senate is also important if a Democrat senator decides to break ranks.

What’s more, the Democrats’ victory in Nevada means fewer oversight hearings and investigations of the Biden administration, which the Republican Party had promised to do in the lead-up to the midterm elections.

After the victory in the Senate, Biden had this message for the Republican Party, which remains under the influence of Trump. “I think the Republican Party is going to have to decide who they are,” he said.

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