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For Dems, there’s a big difference between 51 and 50 Senate seats

Democrats were going to be in the majority anyway, no matter the outcome in Georgia, but the difference between 51 and 50 Senate seats is enormous.


A few weeks ago, after U.S. Senate races in Arizona and Nevada were called for the Democratic incumbents, an important truth came into focus: Republicans, who had high expectations about taking control of the chamber, had come up short. No matter what happened in Georgia’s runoff election, the GOP would be in the minority.

But that didn’t make the contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker irrelevant. “It’s always better at 51,” President Joe Biden said on Nov. 12, referring to his preferred number of Senate seats.

This is about far more than just bragging rights: There are practical and procedural differences between a 51-seat majority and a 50-50 Senate in which Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris gives her party a functioning majority.

So long, power-sharing agreement: Circling back to our earlier coverage, Senate leaders from both parties slowly negotiated a compromise deal early last year that ensured equal representation for Democrats and Republicans on committees. That agreement can now be tossed aside as Democrats enjoy an actual, proper majority.

A new committee dynamic: In the current Congress, the fact that every committee has equal representation from both parties means there are a lot of tie votes. This, in turn, makes the process of advancing legislation and nominees to the Senate floor vastly slower and more burdensome, adding “discharge petitions” to the process.

In the next Congress, a 51-member majority won’t have to deal with any of this — and given the importance Democrats have placed on judicial confirmations, we’ll likely see the significance of this new dynamic on a very regular basis over the next couple of years.

A vote to spare: Since early last year, if one Senate Democrat was out sick, party leaders realized they wouldn’t have the votes they’d need on key measures. If one of conference’s more conservative members was prepared to break ranks on a given vote, the vote wouldn’t happen.

Having a vote to spare, in other words, will mean a lot less frustration for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer the next time Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he has a problem with a progressive White House nominee.

What’s more, as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein recently explained:

Committees with Democratic majorities will also find it easier to conduct oversight investigations that Republicans object to. Not all oversight is partisan. But plenty of it is perceived that way by the minority party, and a clear majority will make hearings and investigations at last marginally smoother. And with the Republican-majority House preparing its own partisan hearings, Democrats might welcome the opportunity to have more control over Senate hearings.

There’s another election cycle on the horizon: The 2024 election cycle is likely to be pretty rough for Senate Democrats, and the larger their majority in the next Congress, the better positioned they’ll be for the Congress that follows.

Democrats were going to be in the majority anyway, no matter the outcome in Georgia, but the difference between 51 and 50 Senate seats is enormous.