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Democrats take majority in the Senate after Biden's inauguration

Harris swears in 3 Democratic senators
Harris swears in 3 Democratic senators 04:01

Democrats took control of the Senate on Wednesday afternoon, giving the party control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Vice President Kamala Harris, who was sworn in during the inauguration ceremony Wednesday, administered the oath of office for Senators-elect Jon Ossoff, Alex Padilla and Raphael Warnock on Wednesday.

Ossoff and Warnock won their runoff elections in Georgia earlier this month, and Padilla was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to replace Harris in the Senate. This was Harris' first time in the Senate chamber since she was sworn in, and she laughed after announcing she would be administering the oath to her successor. Harris was given a standing ovation when she entered the room.

With Ossoff, Padilla and Warnock seated, Democrats hold the narrowest possible majority in the Senate. The balance will be 50 Democrats to 50 Republicans, with Harris breaking any tie. After the three new senators were sworn in, Senator Patrick Leahy was elected president pro tempore of the Senate. The president pro tempore is the longest serving senator in the majority party, and can preside over the Senate in the absence of the vice president.

New Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor on Wednesday that lawmakers would get to work on implementing the "lengthy agenda" set by President Biden, such as addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

"Today, the threat to our democracy from the presidency itself has ended, but the challenges we face as a nation remain," Schumer said. He added that this would be a "busy and consequential period for the United States Senate." 

Schumer said that the Senate would work differently under a Democratic majority, implicitly drawing a contrast with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who as majority leader blocked several bills passed in the House from moving forward in the Senate.

"This Senate will legislate. It will be active, responsive, energetic and bold," Schumer said. He reached out to his Republican colleagues, saying that he would aim to legislate on a bipartisan basis when possible, and that "the Senate works best when we work together."

However, in his first speech as minority leader, McConnell indicated that he did not believe Democrats had a mandate, given their narrow majority in the Senate.

"Our country deserves both sides and both parties to find common ground for the common good where we can," McConnell said.

Schumer and McConnell have discussed an arrangement based on the power-sharing deal implemented in 2001, the last time there was a 50-50 split in the Senate. Vice President Dick Cheney was in office then, giving Republicans the narrow majority.

Schumer and McConnell met on Tuesday afternoon, and Schumer, according to a spokesperson, "expressed that the fairest, most reasonable and easiest path forward is to adopt the 2001 bipartisan agreement without extraneous changes from either side." Under the organizing resolution of 2001, the power-sharing arrangement would provide both parties with equal representation on committees, and set up a process for breaking ties in committees that would give a slim advantage to Democrats.

The Republican leader warned Schumer against eliminating the filibuster during their meeting on Tuesday, according to a McConnell spokesperson.

"Leader McConnell expressed his long-held view that the crucial, longstanding, and bipartisan Senate rules concerning the legislative filibuster remain intact, specifically during the power share for the next two years. Discussions on all aspects of the power-sharing agreement will continue over the next several days," said the spokesperson.

Because most legislation requires 60 votes to end debate, Democrats will need support from at least 10 Republicans to move forward on most bills. Democrats will have such a narrow majority in the Senate that it could be difficult for Congress to pass some of Mr. Biden's legislative priorities.

Schumer said Tuesday that passing a comprehensive government and ethics reform bill would be a top priority for the new Senate. A version of the bill was passed in the House two years ago, but McConnell blocked it from having a vote on the Senate floor while he was majority leader. 

If Schumer feels he is unable to pass this and other measures, he could opt to invoke the procedural maneuver known as the "nuclear option" and eliminate the filibuster. Doing so would also allow the Senate to hold party-line votes on issues important to Democrats, such as making Washington, D.C., a state. 

The filibuster has already been eliminated for all judicial and cabinet nominations, so Mr. Biden's nominees can be confirmed, even without any Republican support. Mr. Biden has called for a return to bipartisanship in governing once he returns to office, but it is unclear whether his hopes will withstand the test of the polarized reality of Congress.

One of Mr. Biden's top legislative priorities is the passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. He would like to see it passed with bipartisan support, but if he cannot reach a deal with Senate Republicans, the package could still pass under reconciliation, a process sometimes used for spending measures that also only requires a simple majority for passage.

In addition to Mr. Biden's legislative priorities and the confirmation of his Cabinet, the Senate will also undertake an impeachment trial in the coming weeks. The House voted to impeach Mr. Trump earlier this month on the charge of inciting insurrection, after a pro-Trump mob assaulted the Capitol on January 6. Even though Mr. Trump has left office, the impeachment trial is still expected to take place.

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