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Democrats hang on to their crucial Senate majority

There’s one big reason this still matters even though they may still lose the House.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol on September 28.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Democrats will maintain a narrow majority in the Senate for at least the next two years, according to the results from this week’s elections.

Exactly how many seats Democrats ultimately will hold depends on the results of the Georgia runoff elections, set for December 6. But with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s win in Nevada, Democrats now hold 50 seats. That means, at the very least, the balance of power will remain the same as it is now, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaker. Should the party prevail in Georgia, they’ll have ended the midterms with a net gain of one seat.

“This election is a victory; a victory and a vindication for Democrats, our agenda, and for America and the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a victory speech in New York Saturday evening. “There are three things that helped [Democrats] secure the majority: One, our terrific candidates; two, our agenda and our accomplishments; and three, the American people rejected the anti-democratic, extremist, MAGA Republicans.”

Democrats’ wins in the upper chamber come as Republicans appear poised to retake the House, a situation that would set up a split Congress, and likely see standoffs over must-pass bills like funding the government and increasing the debt ceiling. Should Democrats control one chamber while Republicans control the other, the likelihood of more ambitious legislation passing is exceedingly slim. There is a very narrow path for Democratic victory in the House, but even if the party keeps its majority there, having tiny margins in both chambers would probably temper their policy ambitions.

No matter what happens in the House, Democrats’ Senate majority preserves the party’s pivotal ability to continue confirming judges and executive nominees, including any theoretical pick for the Supreme Court. That’s a hugely significant power — which could have implications for decades — despite the limitations lawmakers will likely face when it comes to legislation.

What can Democrats do with their Senate majority?

If the GOP wins the House, as seems likely, the main thing Democrats can continue to focus on is confirming judicial nominees, roles that are especially important for the party to fill after Republicans sought to stack the courts in their favor during the Trump administration.

“The main difference between a split Congress and one controlled by Republicans completely would be Biden’s ability to fill judicial and other vacancies,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

According to Demand Justice, a progressive advocacy group focused on the courts, there are 118 federal judicial vacancies that still need to be filled, including 62 that do not yet have a nomination. Over the next two years, Democrats can make important progress on these vacancies: In the first two years of President Joe Biden’s administration, they’ve already confirmed 84 judges in total, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Biden’s nominees have included more women, more people of color, and more public defenders than his predecessors, a trend that Democrats could continue in the new term.

And that’s not the only benefit: Keeping the Senate majority also means that Democrats would still set their own floor agenda and be able to reject bills approved by a GOP-led House. Democrats will have more leverage on issues like government funding, for example, since the Senate will be able to craft its own version of these bills. Plus, upper-chamber leaders could ensure that hearings and committee time aren’t used on investigations of Biden and other members of his administration, a key prerogative of a Republican-controlled House.

Depending on the investigations a GOP-controlled House decides to put forth, Senate Democrats could also try to avoid any impeachment pushes that come out of the lower chamber. “The House could go ahead and vote to impeach, but there is some ambiguity about whether or not the Senate is compelled to hold a trial,” said George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder.

Should Democrats keep the House — a scenario that’s increasingly unlikely, but not impossible — their narrow majorities in both chambers would probably force them to pass most legislation through reconciliation (unless the party decided to end the filibuster, something many Democratic senators have been opposed to in the past). Targets for reconciliation could include improvements to the Affordable Care Act, new climate regulations, as well as child care, educational, and tax policies that didn’t make it into Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act.

In general, a Democratic Senate majority means that even if they can’t pass major legislation should Republicans have control of the House, they can continue to use the Senate for important nominations, and for countering attempts by the House to increase scrutiny on the Biden administration and force spending fights over routine bills.

Update, November 12, 10:25 pm ET: This story has been updated to include comments from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

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