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New agreement finally lets Dems take control of the Senate

A new agreement will, among other things, put Democratic chairs in charge of the Senate's many powerful committees.
Image: Democrats Hold Press Conferences Pushing Back On Amy Coney Barrett's Confirmation Process
Democratic members of Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, exit the Capitol for a news conference on Oct. 22, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

The U.S. Senate has been stuck in a weird limbo in recent weeks, with voters having rewarded Democrats with a majority, but with Republicans maintaining operational control over much of the chamber.

This morning, as NBC News reported, the parties' respective leaders worked out an agreement that will, among other things, put Democratic chairs in charge of the Senate's many committees.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced an agreement Wednesday with Republicans to organize the evenly split chamber, ending a weekslong standoff that prevented the new Democratic majority from setting up some operations and soured relations at the start of the congressional session.

"I am happy to report this morning that the leadership of both parties have finalized the organizing resolution for the Senate," the Democratic leader explained on the Senate floor this morning. "We will pass the resolution through the Senate today, which means that committees can promptly set up and get to work with Democrats holding the gavels."

It's worth pausing to appreciate how we arrived at this point. As we recently discussed, the Senate needs to approve something called an "organizing resolution" at the start of the session, which ordinarily is a straightforward agreement among senators about how the chamber will function over the course of the Congress.

In an evenly divided Senate -- each party now has a 50-member conference -- the resolution is a bit more complicated, but the expectation was that the chamber would function the same way it did 20 years ago, which is the last time there was a 50-50 Senate. Indeed, in 2001, Democratic and Republican leaders spent just two days working out a sensible agreement.

In 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the old template was no longer good enough. The top GOP senator refused to endorse any agreement unless Schumer agreed in advance that Democrats will not eliminate legislative filibusters over the next two years.

Senate Dems, not surprisingly, refused to give up their leverage, so McConnell blocked the Senate from functioning normally -- a stance that left Republicans in charge of Senate committees, despite the fact that the GOP is now in the minority.

Last week, McConnell seemed to back off after some Democratic senators made their opposition to filibuster reform clear, but even then, the process dragged out for another week.

The drama is now coming to an end, but time is a valuable resource, and McConnell has managed to take some of it away from his rivals. Barring any changes, the Senate Democratic majority should have had 24 months to pursue its many priorities in this Congress, and as of today, the Minority Leader just lowered that number to 23.

In the short term, the newly empowered Democratic majority is likely to hit the ground running, paying particular attention to putting the committees to good use. For example, as recently as Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) refused to schedule a confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, President Biden's nominee for attorney general, ahead of Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

It's quite likely that new Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will take a different approach now that the gavel is in his hands and not Graham's.