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Give us a Senate majority, Democrats plead at debate. But there would still be trouble

Senators running for president looked the American public squarely in the eye this week and had stern advice — elect enough Democrats to run the Senate and things will get done.

During this week’s debate in Florida, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, on how to bring about change, said, “Well, here’s how I see this happening. Number one, sure, I want to see us get a Democratic majority in the Senate.”

Except even if Democrats won the Senate, they would still face three factors contributing to the current inertia that are likely to linger well into 2021, when the next Congress will convene:

Liberals vs. centrists. The party is divided between liberals and more moderate, pragmatic members -- a split on vivid display this week when Democratic leaders had to join with Republicans to win approval of a measure to ease the struggles faced by migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Liberals balked at the plan.

Mitch McConnell. Sixty votes are usually needed to limit debate on policy legislation. As long as the Republican party controls at least 41 of the 100 Senate seats, “Mitch McConnell will remain powerful,” Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said of the Senate Republican leader.

The numbers. The math is not in the Democrats’ favor. The party now controls 47 seats. It needs four to control the chamber, three if a Democrat becomes president.

Republicans will defend 22 seats next year, Democrats 12.

Inside Elections, a nonpartisan research group, estimates 16 of the Republican seats are safe. It sees only two Republican-held seats — those now held by Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona — as toss-ups. Others that could be in play are in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa. The analysis regards Democrats as facing a struggle to keep the seat of Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama.

Yet senators seeking the White House brought up the notion that electing more Democrats to the Senate is a ticket to success.

“This is about getting us back to having 50 votes in the Senate and more so that we cannot only balance the Supreme Court, but start to pass an aggressive agenda,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Warren echoed that sentiment.

A Democratic Senate, though, would almost instantly effect two major changes, involving judgeships and Senate committees.

It takes 51 votes to limit debate on judicial nominees. In a Democratic Senate, should Trump win re-election the current stream of confirmations would quickly stop. If the president is a Democrat, he or she should have no trouble winning confirmation of nominees.

“There would be a big difference. It would be huge,” said Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

A Democratic majority in the Senate would mean committees would have different chairmen with very different agendas. A study by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution study found that in the last Congress, run by the GOP, southerners held 29 percent of chairmanships. When Democrats last ran the Senate, from 2013-15, southerners had 12.5 percent of the chairmanships.

The Judiciary Committee is now headed by Trump ally Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, while the top Democrat is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

The appropriations committee, where key spending decisions are made, could pass from Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Instead of Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, in charge of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, is now the panel’s top Democrat.

The biggest obstacle could be McConnell. The wily Republican leader is regarded as a master of parliamentary tactics — or master of obstruction — depending on one’s point of view.

It’s a role he relishes.

“Well what I understand my sin is that I’ve been stopping left wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters Thursday. “If that’s my sin I plead guilty.”

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
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