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Essential Politics: How the battle for Senate control will shape Biden’s first two years

Democratic lawmakers
From left, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) walks with Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the Capitol on Thursday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The last election has barely moved out of the rearview mirror, and already the battle for the next one has begun, strongly shaping the way lawmakers from both parties approach the impeachment of President Trump, the debate over President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package and issues such as the future of the Senate filibuster.

Many Americans hate the way political battling in Washington never pauses, but the near-even balance between the two parties — a dominant feature of the political scene since at least the end of President Clinton’s tenure — makes it hard to avoid.

Even when one side has a big majority, as Democrats had after President Obama’s election in 2008, they can’t rest on it. And the losing party can always figure that majority power lies just one election away — Republicans proved that two years after Obama’s win by recapturing the majority in the House.

That see-saw of political power isn’t inevitable: For large parts of American history, one party or the other held solid majorities for long periods. Currently, however, parity stands as the order of the day, and neither party has found a way to gain a lasting advantage.

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That’s especially true now. Republicans have gone from controlling the White House and both houses of Congress to having no control in just four years, making Trump the first Republican to suffer so thorough a reversal since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression. But given the Democrats’ slender majorities in Congress and the usual pattern of the president’s party losing ground in the first midterm election, Republicans have reason to hope that they can regain the majority in one, or maybe both, houses in 2022.

First, however, the GOP needs to figure out how to deal with the divisions that Trump has caused in their party. Republican leaders, especially in the Senate, face tough choices: Split with Trump or maintain their ties? Cooperate with Biden or try to obstruct? The next few weeks will provide evidence of which way they have decided to go.

The way of the Senate

Ever since the late 1980s, Senate elections have gotten more and more tightly aligned with presidential voting.

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Today, only six senators — Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana along with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — represent states that the other party carried in the presidential race.

The problem for Democrats in the Senate, as political analyst Ron Brownstein has noted, is that even though their party’s presidential candidates have won more votes than their opponents in seven of the last eight elections — a historically unequaled string of popular majorities — they’ve usually carried slightly fewer states than the Republicans. As the presidential and Senate results have come more and more into alignment, Republicans have had more senators for 16 of those last 32 years.

In November, Biden carried 25 states — precisely half — and the Senate is split 50-50.

For Democrats to build a stable Senate majority, they need to achieve some combination of the following:

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Strengthen their hold on the two states that flipped their way in 2020 — Arizona and Georgia.

Find another state or two that they can turn blue, with North Carolina and Texas being the perennial, but elusive, targets, while avoiding any further erosion in their support in the big industrial states, especially Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Or add new states likely to elect Democrats — a priority for many on the party’s left, who want statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, two jurisdictions with a combined 3.8 million residents who lack voting representation in Congress.

Now look at the map of Senate elections for 2022:

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Newly elected Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock, who both won special elections, will have to face voters again, providing an early test of whether Democrats can hold Arizona and Georgia.

Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where Republican incumbents Toomey and Sen. Richard Burr have announced they will retire, and Wisconsin, where Johnson hasn’t said if he’ll run again, will show whether Democrats can flip another state or whether they’ll suffer further losses in the industrial belt.

That’s the political background against which the Senate battles of Biden’s tenure will play out.

What lies ahead

After Obama’s election, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his colleagues calculated that obstruction offered their best path back to a majority.

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That worked, but they can’t be sure it will do so again. After four years of Trump, voters are in a different place ideologically than they were in 2009, and Biden — an older, white man who has demonstrated an appeal to formerly Republican suburban voters — may prove a tougher target for GOP attacks. Already, corporate America has pulled back on political donations in reaction to Trump.

The calculations on which way the GOP will go have started to play out on at least three fronts — impeachment, Biden’s proposed COVID-19 relief package and confirmations of his nominees.

At stake in the impeachment is whether Trump will be held accountable for what Democrats — and some Republicans — see as his efforts to undermine American democracy, culminating in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. If so, will that accountability include a ban on his running again for federal office?

Convicting Trump would require two-thirds of the Senate, meaning 17 Republicans if all 50 Democrats vote against him.

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Right now, it’s hard to come up with a list of 17 who might vote to convict, but that could change. Trump could do or say something to further inflame opinion in the Senate. The criminal investigation into the attack could turn up new evidence of links between the rioters and Trump or people close to him. Most important, McConnell, who has said he is considering conviction, could sway votes if he decides to come down forcefully against Trump.

For now, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported, McConnell has proposed that the start of the trial be delayed until mid-February to give Trump time to put together a legal team and muster a defense, which would also give more time for the investigation to continue and for Republicans to further gauge the public mood.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicated on Friday that he wants a faster pace, but did not specify a schedule, leaving room for further negotiations, but also indicating that the two sides haven’t reached agreement even on a schedule.

In the meantime, the Senate has begun to confirm Biden’s Cabinet members, but Democrats will continue to face hurdles in getting Biden’s program approved.

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Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, won approval Thursday. Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed as secretary of Defense on Friday morning, and Biden’s nominees to run the departments of State and Treasury may be confirmed later in the day.

Other nominees will take longer as Republicans hope to mobilize their voters by opposing picks who can be tagged as too liberal.

And although formal Senate debate on the COVID-19 package won’t start for another couple of weeks — the House is slated to vote during the first week of February — negotiations have already begun.

Senate Republicans have made clear they don’t support the full $1.9 trillion that Biden has proposed. The White House, confident that the public favors most of what the president has put forward, has tossed the challenge back to the Republicans.

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“What do you want to cut?” press secretary Jen Psaki asked Thursday.

Biden has insisted that he wants to try over the next few weeks to see if bipartisan agreement can be reached. If not, Democrats have procedural avenues available, including the possibility of eliminating filibusters, that would allow them to force through much of what he’s proposed on a simple majority vote.

These early skirmishes will set the pattern for at least the first two years of Biden’s presidency. As they do, the 2022 Senate battlegrounds will never be far from either party’s minds.

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An Inauguration Day like no other

Odds are that if you’re reading this newsletter, you watched the inauguration. But if there’s anything you missed, we’ve got you covered. Here are highlights of our extensive Los Angeles Times coverage, beginning with Haberkorn and Janet Hook’s overall account of the day’s events.

Here’s the text of Biden’s inaugural address and my analysis of the central argument Biden was making: He called for national unity, but also drew a bright line that unity does not mean tolerance for those who undermine democracy.

Vice President Kamala Harris made history in multiple ways as she took the oath of office, Noah Bierman and Melanie Mason wrote. Bierman will continue to follow Harris’ path with a new beat and special editions of this newsletter. This week, he covered the question of how to measure her influence on the Biden administration.

On Wednesday, she was escorted to the platform by Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who has won praise as one of the heroes of the Jan. 6 defense of the Capitol.

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Soon after Harris took her oath, Sen. Alex Padilla was sworn in to replace her, becoming California’s first Latino senator, Sarah Wire reported.

Before leaving office, Trump pardoned his former advisor Steve Bannon and granted clemency to dozens of others, including two former Republican members of Congress convicted of corruption, Eli Stokols wrote.

Stokols also reported on Trump’s final departure as president from Washington. His refusal to attend Biden’s swearing-in complicated the usual smooth transfer of power, Stokols and David Cloud wrote.

In the end, the ceremonies went off without disruption, but all around Biden were reminders of peril — as visible as thousands of troops guarding his inauguration and as subtle as cracked glass in the doorway he passed through after taking his oath, Stokols and Chris Megerian wrote. Around the city, some small crowds of protesters did gather, as did groups of Biden supporters, but overall the city was largely quiet and mostly empty, Anna Phillips, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Molly O’Toole and Tracy Wilkinson reported.

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Biden’s early moves

The new president began his tenure with a flurry of executive orders and memoranda reversing Trump policies on the environment and immigration, as Evan Halper wrote.

Immigration presents special problems for the new administration, O’Toole wrote. The key issue is how to ease up on Trump’s restrictions without sparking a new refugee crisis at the border.

On his first full day of work, Biden moved to bolster the U.S. response to the COVID-19 crisis, Megerian wrote.

Biden also attended to symbolism. As each president has done, he decorated the Oval Office to reflect his values, including a prominent bust of Cesar Chavez, the late leader of California’s farmworkers, Daniel Hernandez wrote.

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The Californians

The new vice president may be spending a lot more time in the Senate than she’d like for the next few months, Mark Barabak writes. But casting tie-breaking voters probably won’t determine Harris’ political future.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield appears to have flip-flopped on the question of Trump’s culpability in the assault on the Capitol, Seema Mehta wrote. Last week, on the House floor, he said “the president bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters.” But Thursday, at a news conference, he said, “I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said.”

Four Southern Californians so far have been arrested in connection with the riot. They’re an odd crew, Richard Winton and Michael Finnegan reported.

Stay in touch

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com. If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

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