On Jan. 5 voters in Georgia will vote in two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate. Uppermost in the voters' minds will be how well the two sets of candidates will represent their state's interests in Washington, D.C. But Georgians will also determine whether President-elect Joe Biden, whose victory in the state was certified on Nov. 20, will be able to govern without obstruction from a Republican-controlled Senate.
In one of the Georgia runoffs, incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. The other election, which is for the remaining two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, pits Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, serving temporarily by gubernatorial appointment, against the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.
As a result of the Nov. 3 election, Republicans have 50 seats in the Senate that will convene in January, and Democrats have 46 (the chamber's two independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — caucus with the Democrats). If both Democratic challengers in Georgia were to win, the Senate would be evenly divided, and Vice President Kamala Harris could break a tie, giving Democrats control of that body. If even one of the Republicans in Georgia is elected, that party will continue to control the Senate.
And based on recent experience, that would be a bad result for all 50 states.
Power has frequently been divided in Washington, but the split has been more bitter in recent years. President Barack Obama had to work with a Republican-controlled Senate for his final six years in office, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who famously declared in 2010 that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" — proved a master of obstruction, most notably in his outrageous refusal to consider Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Despite Biden's promise to work across party lines, there is little indication that a Republican-controlled Senate would reciprocate or that McConnell would cooperate with Biden any more than he did with Obama.
What would that mean in practice? If Republicans retain the majority, then McConnell will have not only the power to name committee chairs and to decide, assuming he can keep his caucus unified, which Biden nominees get confirmed. More important, under Senate rules he will be able to control the Senate's agenda and prevent Democrats from obtaining votes on proposed legislation. At the very least, that could make it hard for the new president to keep any of his major campaign promises (as could a fragmented Democratic majority).
And there is another danger: If President Donald Trump remains a force in Republican politics, McConnell and other Republican senators might be pressed by the former president and his loyal supporters to stonewall Biden at every opportunity. McConnell's timidity in the face of Trump's disinformation about the election results is an ominous sign that he might be unable to resist such pressure.
That would translate into four years of gridlock as lawmakers make no headway on the many challenges facing this country. Instead, the onus would be on Biden to act through executive order and agency rules, continuing what has been a disturbing shift of power in Washington from Congress to the executive branch.
Some voters in Georgia who supported Biden might also believe in the virtues of divided government. But we suspect that most of those who supported the president-elect hoped that he would be successful in accomplishing his agenda, something that could prove impossible with a Republican majority in the Senate.
It's also worth bearing in mind that even if Democrats win both seats in Georgia, their grip on power won't be strong. They'll have only a narrow margin in the House and no margin at all in the Senate, realities that will force party leaders to seek consensus — and look for bipartisan support to overcome any defections. The idea of a "radical left takeover" under the circumstances is laughable.
A Senate Republican minority could still use the filibuster to try to block the president's initiatives, although they would have no power to stop Biden's nominees. Granted, some Democrats have called for eliminating filibusters on legislation too, but the mere threat to do so could induce McConnell to cooperate with the White House.
Obviously voters in Georgia will consider the positions of the Senate candidates on issues important to the state, and they also will pass judgment on their qualifications and ethics. It would be presumptuous for a California newspaper to tell Georgians which candidates would be better at representing their state.
But Georgians are also Americans. Because of the timing of the runoff elections, they know that how they cast their ballots will make a crucial difference in how the entire country is governed. With that knowledge comes a huge responsibility. In this case, all politics are not local.(c)2020 Los Angeles Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC