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Why Florida’s senators care about Georgia — and why you should too

It’s fairly simple: the fate of the Senate hangs in the balance.

MARIETTA, Ga. — It’s not often you hear a politician make an urgent appeal to voters a week after Election Day.

But last week, in Marietta, Sen. Marco Rubio told voters there that the “very direction of the country” is in their hands.

Joe Biden, a Democrat, has won the presidency. Democrats also kept control of the U.S. House of Representatives — although they won fewer seats than they anticipated. The only political body in our nation’s capital whose fate has yet to be determined is the 100-member U.S. Senate. Right now, the upper chamber is expected to have 48 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

The two races left to be decided are in Georgia: the special election between incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, and the race between Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat John Ossoff. No candidate in either Senate race got more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, so the two contests will be decided in runoffs.

There’s a reason Florida’s senators, Rubio and Rick Scott, are working hard to keep Georgia’s Senate seats red. And there’s a reason Georgia is about to be flooded with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of political ads. Here are three things to know about how the Jan. 5 Georgia run-off races could affect national politics.

1. Republicans warn of a radical takeover. Don’t count on one.

Even if Democrats do win both seats, that would bring the Senate to a 50-50 partisan tie. If the Senate votes along party lines, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris would have to cast major tie-breaking votes. Democrats would have no room for party defections in legislative negotiations.

Rubio and Scott have warned Georgia voters that Democrats would enact a radical agenda if they control the House, Senate and presidency: they’d pack the U.S. Supreme Court with liberal justices, defund the police and radically transform American health care.

Yet Senate Democrats are far from united behind those ideas. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, said he wouldn’t support packing the Supreme Court. Ossoff has said he doesn’t support defunding the police — a phrase which has been interpreted many different ways across the ideological spectrum. Even ideas about reforming health care vary widely across the Democratic caucus. Far left figures like Bernie Sanders want a Medicare for all system. More moderate figures like President-Elect Biden simply want to beef up the Affordable Care Act.

Rubio asserts his Democratic colleagues aren’t as moderate as they say they are.

“On issue after issue, that’s not how they vote,” Rubio told the crowd in Georgia.

But only one Democrat would need to break from their party, a common occurrence, to prevent Rubio’s doomsday scenario from becoming reality.

2. The elections could determine the fate of the next round of coronavirus stimulus.

Congress’ bipartisan action on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March likely saved millions of jobs. But eight months later, the funding for several of the bill’s programs has run out or is set to expire in just a few weeks. With coronavirus cases spiking all over the country, state and local officials say Americans are in need of another round of aid.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been deadlocked over negotiations on stimulus bill for months. In May, the Democratic-led House passed a $3.4 trillion measure which would, among other things, give more federal aid to states, more money for testing and expand federal unemployment benefits to the CARES Act level of $600 per week. Republican Senate Majority Leader McConnell called this proposal “unserious.”

Senate Republicans countered the House’s bill with a much smaller $500 billion relief package which would expand federal unemployment benefits to $300 per week, set aside money for schools and testing and expand liability protections for businesses. Democrats blocked that bill.

If Democrats take the Senate, expect a much more generous — and expensive — next round of coronavirus aid. If Republicans keep the chamber, conservatives would have the final say over the next relief package.

3. The filibuster would give Republicans major power even if they lose control of the senate

Historically, the U.S. Senate’s filibuster has been a moderating mechanism. Senate rules state that 60 votes are needed in order to end debate on most legislative matters. If that threshold is not reached, the minority party can effectively block a vote on a certain topic.

Many Democrats, fearing Republican obstructionism during the Biden years, want to see the filibuster ended. But there doesn’t appear to be enough support behind the idea to make it a reality even if Democrats take both U.S. Senate seats: Manchin and U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein of California have said they like the filibuster. Ossoff and Warnock are iffy on the idea of killing it.

If Republicans stonewall Biden’s agenda or vote against his Cabinet picks, pressure could mount on Democrats to end the filibuster. For now, though, Senate Republicans would wield significant leverage even over a Democratic Senate majority. Not only would all 50 Democrats have to get behind most legislation, liberals would need to garner the support of another 10 Republicans to pass bills, too.

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