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Fast Thinking

January 8, 2021

FAST THINKING: What Biden can do with a Democratic Congress

By Atlantic Council


It’s a big development that’s been overshadowed by the crisis on Capitol Hill: Both of Georgia’s Senate run-off elections have now been called for the Democrats, giving them control of Congress and the presidency for the first time in a decade. That really opens things up for the incoming Biden administration, not least when it comes to its policy agenda on the economy, climate change, and national security. What can we expect?


  • Kathy Baughman McLeod (@KBMcLeodFLA): Director of the Adrienne Arsht—Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center

Biden fast-tracks his team—and his policies

  • Let’s start with the basics: Before the Georgia vote, Biden was expected to face stiff resistance from Republicans even on the normally routine process of putting the top members of his team into place. He may still have trouble with certain appointments—some Democrats plan to oppose granting a waiver to his pick for defense secretary, who would need one because he recently served in the military. But with Democrats in control of the Senate, Damon says, the path will be smoother: “Biden should be able to build his foreign-policy team more quickly—enabling him to begin executing his foreign-policy agenda more quickly.”
  • He breaks down the dynamics for key confirmation votes, which are spearheaded by the major Senate committees: “With majority control, Democratic senators will become committee chairs—for example, Senator Bob Menendez will lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and Senator Jack Reed will lead the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC)—and, as such, be able to set schedules, hold hearings, and call votes. While any one senator can complicate a nomination and the administration will aim for bipartisan backing of its nominees, committees like SFRC and SASC would likely have a thin Democratic majority, helping the administration win votes even in the face of Republican opposition.”

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The foreign-policy debate moves to the left

Barry thinks the new Senate makeup could bring to the fore the contest of ideas between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, particularly with the Republican Party “searching for its moorings in 2021” following the tumultuous end of Donald Trump’s presidency. And if that happens, he adds, there might be an unexpected twist: “Might this create space for centrists in both parties to align more, in opposition to notions of wholesale withdrawal of key forms of US engagement in the world?”

We asked Barry for some specific ways that Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches might affect US foreign policy. Here’s his initial list:

  • “Much greater caution on questions regarding the use of military force.”
  • “Much greater caution on covert action and spying,” with a relative shift away from traditional forms of intelligence collection and toward more technical approaches.
  • “Greater emphasis on arms control” and ways to cooperate with rivals such as Russia and China on matters of mutual interest, ranging from climate change to pandemic prevention.
  • “Greater constraints on US support to military operations in Yemen and on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
  • “Greater concern for human rights in Saudi Arabia and China (and possibly Iran) that becomes part of our public diplomacy at a much higher volume” relative to the Trump era.

An accelerated climate agenda

  • Biden already signaled that he would take climate change seriously, naming John Kerry to a new Cabinet position dedicated to tackling the issue. Now he can dive into specifics. Rejoining the Paris climate agreement was already a given, as it can be done with an executive order. As Kathy sees it, Democratic control of Congress will now “fundamentally accelerate and bolster the movement of Biden’s aggressive climate agenda.”
  • As for those specifics: Environmental regulations that have been rolled back during the Trump administration, like those protecting clean air and water and limiting carbon emissions, can be reinstated more quickly, helping to address racial and environmental injustices. Investment in critical science needed to combat climate change and protect the environment can be reinvigorated. All this can translate to “strong performance on climate goals for both mitigation and resilience,” Kathy says.

What’s coming on the amped-up economic front

  • Josh thinks economic policy could be the realm where Americans see the most immediate impact from the Georgia vote. “Capturing the Senate majority completely changes the ambitions of the Biden presidency on the economic front,” he tells us. “The president-elect now has an opportunity to pursue his entire economic agenda.”
  • Here’s how he sees it playing out: “Even with historically narrow majorities, we can expect rapid action in the first one hundred days to accelerate fiscal stimulus, develop a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill, consider major tax reforms, and enact fixes to the Affordable Care Act. Unlike with other types of bills that require sixty votes in the Senate to succeed, some budget and spending legislation can pass through a simple majority vote. That means the economy will now be front and center of the agenda.”
  • And watch for US stimulus to boost the entire global economy, Josh adds: “Going into 2021 there was fear in some capitals that austerity policies would return too soon and we’d see a replay of the weak growth we experienced in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Now Biden may have credibility with other world leaders to press them to continue and expand their own fiscal-rescue packages into 2021 and beyond.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Damon Wilson, Barry Pavel, and Josh Lipsky

Image: Michael Holahan/ USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters