On Sunday, January 3, 2021, the new 117th Congress began.

On January 5, the fate of the Senate was decided when the two Georgia senate seats were filled by two Democrats. The run-off elections were the result of the November election, where none of the candidates won a clear majority of the total Georgia vote—a requirement under Georgia election law.

The two Senate seats went to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who defeated incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Senator David Perdue (R-GA). The results mean that Democrats will hold 50 Senate seats equal to the Republican total (there are two independents who align with Democrats), and that empowers incoming Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote in deciding who controls the Senate. The last time that occurred was January 2001 with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The election means that Democrats will control the Senate for the first time since 2014. The 50-50 split means many bills will face tight battles to break future Senate filibusters (requiring 60 votes to break), but it also means that Democrats, with a coordinating House majority, may be able to use the budget reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster in some legislatively limited ways. Most significantly, the narrow majority means that President-Elect Biden’s cabinet selections will have an easier path forward since it will be Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) who will control the floor schedule.

This will be the first priority of the new Senate leadership.

Due to the change, President-Elect Biden will be in a much stronger position to develop the next COVID-19 relief package. Another significant impact of the Georgia election is that Senate Democrats will control the chairmanships of the Senate committees. Although the minority status may influence some Republican choices, some of the key incoming Senate chairmanships will be:

  • FINANCE Committee: Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair and Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) likely-ranking
  • HELP COMMITTEE: Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), chair and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) possible ranking
  • Appropriations Committee: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) chair and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) possible ranking.
  • BANKING, HOUSING & URBAN AFFAIRS Committee: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), chair, and possible changes between Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), current Chair Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL).

The significance of the Banking Committee is that it oversees housing and urban issues in addition to banks. The Republican ranking positions could be affected as senators select other prominent committee assignments. Senate Republicans have a self-imposed six-year term limit on the chair and ranking positions. Two of the key Republicans listed above (Toomey and Burr) have already announced they will not run again in 2022, influencing committee selections. Also of significance is that there were departures from the Senate Finance Committee with the retirement of Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), which means at least two new slots are open with Democrats likely to get at least one or both of those slots.

The 50-50 split can also be precarious. In 2001, the Republican control due to Vice President Cheney slipped when Senator Jim Jeffords (R-VT) switched his status to independent in June 2001 and aligned with Democrats changing the Senate control until the next election.