Georgia runoff could hold key to Biden stimulus checks

President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for more economic stimulus packages may hinge on the outcome of Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs on Tuesday.

The runoffs will determine which party will control the Senate, and if Republicans maintain control, the chances of Biden getting approval for a major stimulus package appear slim. Before the last Congress adjourned last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doomed a measure that would have increased the latest round of stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000.

That measure was backed by not only President Donald Trump but also liberal Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

If Democrats win both of Georgia’s Senate runoffs on Tuesday, the Senate will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Democrat, holding a tiebreaking vote. Republicans need to hold one of Georgia’s Senate seats to maintain their majority.

Biden has gone on record in support of a massive economic stimulus as the economic recovery from this spring’s coronavirus lockdowns falters amid a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases.

In early December, Biden delivered remarks in the wake of November’s national jobs report, which showed a sharp decrease in U.S. hiring even as the nation is about 10 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

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“This is a grim jobs report,” Biden said. “It shows an economy that is stalling. It confirms we remain in the midst of one of the worst economic and jobs crises in modern history.”

While Biden threw his support behind the recent $900 billion package, he has said much more will be needed once he takes office. “Congress and President Trump must get a deal done for the American people,” Biden said last month. “But any package passed in the lame duck session is not enough. It’s just the start.”

Biden presented himself to Americans as a uniter and a seasoned legislative broker, but the Georgia elections will help determine whether he is able to live up to his billing.

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“It’s not that you can’t get anything done in the minority or get everything done in the majority, but having the gavel, having that leadership control can be the difference in success or failure for an administration,” said Jim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, who held his post opposite McConnell.

Even a closely divided Democratic Senate wouldn’t give Biden everything he wants. Senate rules still require 60 votes to advance most major legislation; for now, there aren’t enough Democrats willing to change that requirement. So, regardless of Georgia’s results, Biden will have to win over Republicans in a Senate in which a bipartisan group of more centrist senators stand to see their stock rise.

A Democratic Senate still would clear an easier path for Biden’s nominees to key posts, especially on the federal judiciary, and give Democrats control of committees and much of the floor action. Conversely, a Senate led by McConnell almost certainly would deny Biden major legislative victories, as it did late in President Barack Obama’s tenure, by keeping his agenda from even getting up-or-down votes.

Biden’s team is keenly aware of the stakes. The president-elect is in Atlanta on Monday, the eve of the runoffs, to campaign with Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for the second time in three weeks. Biden’s campaign aides have helped raise millions to boost the party infrastructure that helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 to carry the state. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris campaigned Sunday in Savannah.

In his last visit, Biden called Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler “roadblocks” and urged Georgians “to vote for two United States senators who know how to say the word ‘yes’ and not just ‘no.’”

Congressional makeup shapes any administration, but perhaps even more so for Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, plus eight as Obama’s vice president and top congressional liaison. Biden leaned on that resume to pitch himself to the country as a consensus builder; he also criticized presidents’ increased use of executive action to go around Congress and insisted it would be different in his presidency.

Even some Republicans are hopeful. Michael Steel, once a top adviser to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, a chief Obama foil along with McConnell, blamed Obama’s Capitol Hill troubles on his personal approach to his fellow politicians. Conversely, Steel said, “President-elect Biden is a legislator by avocation, by training, by instinct, by experience in a way that former President Obama was not.”

Steel predicted Biden and McConnell, two former colleagues, can find “common ground” on infrastructure and immigration — policy areas that have stumped multiple administrations. Steel noted a handful of Republican senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Rob Portman of Ohio, could face tough reelection fights in 2022, potentially making them eager to cut deals they could tout in campaigns.

Still, there’s no indication McConnell would allow consideration of other top Biden priorities, most notably a “public option” expansion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which passed without a Republican vote when Democrats controlled both chambers on Capitol Hill. Biden’s proposed tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans also are likely dead in a GOP Senate.

Biden will need his negotiating skills to navigate the left flank of his own party as well. While progressives say they’ve lowered their expectations of what’s possible — even under a Democratic Senate — they still intend to push Biden.

Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, the offshoot of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, said progressives will press Democrats in Congress to use the “budget reconciliation” process to work around the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. Cohen argued that tactic might be used to accomplish long-sought goals such as ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies and enabling the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to negotiate as a single customer with pharmaceutical companies.

Those moves, Cohen noted, could generate considerable savings, creating new revenue even if Republicans won’t agree to any tax increases.

He also said progressives will push Biden to use executive authority. He named two initiatives Biden has called for publicly: ending new drilling on federal lands and raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 per hour, even if Congress won’t set that floor across the economy. Another progressive priority, canceling student debt under federal loan programs, is something Biden has not said whether he’d be willing to attempt unilaterally.

Democrats’ limited expectations about their own power, even with a potential majority, belie the exaggerated claims Republicans have used in the Georgia races.

In Perdue’s and Loeffler’s telling, a Democratic Senate would “rubber stamp” a “socialist agenda,” from “ending private insurance” and “expanding the Supreme Court” to adopting wholesale a “Green New Deal” that would spend trillions and raise taxes on every U.S. household by thousands of dollars each year. Besides misrepresenting Biden’s and most Democratic senators’ policy preferences, that characterization ignores the reality of the Senate’s roster.

At one campaign stop this week, Ossoff said Perdue’s “ridiculous” attacks “blow my mind.” He scoffed at the claim that his policy ideas, which align closely with Biden, amount to a leftist lunge. But the challenger agreed with the incumbent on how much the Georgia runoffs matter.

“We have too much good work to do,” Ossoff said, “to be mired in gridlock and obstruction for the next few years.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.