Democratic candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff thave been called the winners in both U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, giving the party effective control of both chambers in the 117th Congress.
The news that Ossoff was declared the winner came on a turbulent Jan. 6 in Washington. A mob of supporters of President Trump converged on the U.S. Capitol, breached the building, roaming its iconic halls and even the congressional chambers. One woman was shot and killed in the turmoil.
The fallout from the assault on the Capitol remains to be seen.
Still, the Democrats’ runoff wins mean the Senate will be divided 50-50 between that party (and a couple of independents who caucus with it) and Republicans. But Democrats will control the chamber because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes.
Democrats still control the House after the November elections, but more narrowly than in the 116th Congress. The new House breakdown is 222 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and two vacancies, as of Jan. 6.
Engineering and construction industry officials expect that the Senate switchover will allow Democrats to set the Senate floor agenda, and of course, give them the chairs of the chamber’s committees.
It also will give President-elect Joe Biden a clearer path to confirm his Cabinet picks, which would require a simple majority vote in the Senate.
A Senate controlled by Democrats “brings change in Washington," says Michele Stanley, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association vice president for government and regulatory affairs. “Change in chairmanships, change in staff and change in priorities.”
Stanley added in emailed comments, “However slim, the 50-50 majority, with Vice President-elect Harris breaking ties, means these priorities will not be accomplished without a lot of compromise and consensus...."
Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ senior vice president for advocacy, said in an interview that the Democrats’ new Senate position “allows [Biden] I think to be a bit more aggressive and to shape the start of the conversation—in terms of the legislative agenda—more to his liking.”
But Hall says, "The president is going to need Republicans on his side to move the big stuff forward that becomes law," adding that "It is still going to require consensus. Unless they make major changes to the rules in the Senate, it's going to require the two sides to work together in a way that they haven’t done in a long time."
On the other hand, when it comes to particularly contentious legislation, industry officials note that Democrats could turn to using a procedure called budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority for passage.
Marco Giamberardino, National Electrical Contractors Association vice president for government and public affairs, said via email, “With tight Democratic majorities...we believe there will be a number of opportunities to address long-term issues such as infrastructure investment, multi-employer pension reform and other policy goals that will help the electrical contracting industry.”
Coronavirus Relief Package
Hall predicts that the first major bill on Biden's list will be a further coronavirus relief-economic stimulus bill. Already, the presumed new Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he will push for $2,000 payments to individuals.
Democrats also have backed substantial direct funding for state and local governments, hit hard by pandemic-caused drops in tax revenue.
Peter Comstock, Associated Builders & Contractors director of legislative affairs, notes that if Democrats propose a relief bill, Republicans, led by current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) probably will push to include provisions to provide businesses with liability protection to "avoid frivolous lawsuits."
Comstock said in an interview that if Democrats pursue a coronavirus relief bill in a bipartisan way, "I think there will have to be some sort of liability protection in there to get more Republican buy-in, or at least that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Surface Transportation Bill
A central focus for engineering and construction groups and companies will be infrastructure legislation, particularly a bill to reauthorize highway and transit programs. Hall says, "We know that's going to be the driver."
Highway and transit programs now are operating under a temporary extension, which lapses Sept. 30. Hall notes, "It's got to happen. There's an end date at the end of September."
He adds,"That's going to be the catalyst for what we hope will be a larger infrastructure agenda." That would include non-transportation infrastructure as well.
With Democrats in Senate control, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) will take over as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee—the panel with prime responsibility for highway policy legislation.
Hall expects that under Carper, the new proposed Senate highway bill "will have perhaps a 'greener' tint to it" than the version that emerged from the committee in the last Congress. "But he's still going to need and want Republican support"
Even with a Democratic majority, however, the bill won't be "the Green New Deal," Hall says.
A prime worry for ABC is the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act, a measure that would end secondary boycotts and provide for speedier union organizing elections, among other things.
The bill cleared the House in the last Congress and has strong support from organized labor. But it would have to start all over again in the 117th Congress. Comstock says Biden has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
But Comstock says, "I don't think the PRO Act would get 60 votes in the Senate. It might be able to get 50, though."
It remains to be seen, however, where the PRO Act or other labor legislation ranks on Biden's priority list
Looking ahead, "we're just waiting to kind of see what the Biden administration moves on and what their top priorities are going to be when the president comes into office on the 20th and how they’re going to move forward with the House and Senate and the leadership there,” Comstock says.