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US Democrats win Senate majority to secure government trifecta

Winning Senate puts Democrats in control of Congress in boost to President-elect Joe Biden's agenda
Democrats Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff defeated Republican incumbent Senators Kelley Loeffler and David Perdue on Tuesday (AFP/File photos)
By in
Washington

The US Democratic Party is set to win a majority in the Senate, giving it a governing trifecta with control over the White House and both chambers of Congress in a boost to President-elect Joe Biden's agenda. 

Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, two Democratic challengers, defeated Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the Associated Press reported.

Warnock's win was projected early on Wednesday, while the victory of Ossoff, who was locked in a closer race with Perdue, was confirmed hours later as chaos unfolded in Washington, with outgoing President Donald Trump's supporters storming the US Capitol.

When Warnock and Ossoff take the oath of office later this month, the 100-seat Senate will be evenly split between both major parties, with incoming Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker in 50-50 votes. 

The new composition will ensure a less fraught confirmation process for Biden's cabinet nominees and judicial appointments. 

It will also take the Senate Majority Leader's gavel away from Mitch McConnell - a staunch conservative who has been frustrating Democrats' legislative efforts for six years.

Foreign policy implications

The US Constitution gives the president the authority to conduct foreign policy, but Congress still has oversight over the presidency and plays a major role in influencing Washington's war and peace decisions.

Congress is tasked with allocating money in the federal budget, including foreign aid and military spending. It also has the authority to block arms sales.

Moreover, only Congress can declare war - an authority it has largely abandoned to the executive branch since World War II. But in recent years, key legislators from both major parties have been trying to reclaim lawmakers' power over military intervention.

A Senate majority will also put Democrats at the tops of influential committees that conduct oversight of the White House and have huge say over which bills make it to floor votes - including the committees on foreign relations and armed services.

In 2019, Congress passed legislation to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And after the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani last year, lawmakers approved a bill to prevent Trump from striking the Islamic Republic without congressional approval. Trump vetoed both measures. 

All eyes on Georgia: What are the implications of US Senate runoffs?
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Biden has pledged to end American assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, rejoin the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and restore aid for Palestinians - all policies he can put into action through executive action, but which would be facilitated by a majority in both chambers of Congress. 

The Democrats appeared ecstatic as results early on Wednesday showed that Warnock and Ossoff were heading towards victory.

Chuck Schumer, who is set to replace McConnell as Senate majority leader, sent a cryptic tweet on Wednesday morning - "Buckle up!"

Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has been feuding with Loeffler on Twitter, called on her party to pursue major policy proposals now that it controls Congress and the White House.

"This is our shot, we can go big or go home. It’s time to organize, mobilize and push for transformative change," Omar wrote. "Millions of people have now put their trust in Democrats governing on their behalf and we must meet this moment."

Many activists and commentators paid tribute to voters of colour - who overwhelmingly favoured the Democratic candidates - and the grassroots activists and organisers who helped get out the vote.

"With new votes joining the tally, we are on a strong path," Stacey Abrams, an African-American voting rights activist who helped secure the Democratic victory, said in a tweet. 

"But even while we wait for more, let’s celebrate the extraordinary organizers, volunteers, canvassers & tireless groups that haven’t stopped going since Nov. Across our state, we roared. A few miles to go...but well done!"

The runoffs

Like much of the American South, Georgia has been a traditionally Republican state, but with changing demographics, political realignments and intense efforts from Democratic organisers on the ground, Biden won the state in the presidential election last November.

The same election did not produce a clear winner in the Senate, with none of the four major candidates getting a majority of the votes, which prompted the runoffs.

Tuesday's contests came as Trump is still refusing to accept his own election loss, including in Georgia. 

Warnock, an African-American pastor, had faced accusations of antisemitism over his past criticism of Israel. 

'This is our shot, we can go big or go home'

- Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

In 2019, the senator-elect signed on to a statement by faith leaders who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, comparing the Israeli occupation with apartheid in South Africa. 

He had also slammed Israel's deadly crackdown on Palestinian protesters in the beseiged Gaza Strip during the Great March of Return.

"We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey," Warnock said in a 2018 sermon.

Still, during the last few weeks of the campaign, he disavowed his previous criticism of Israel and accused the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of having "antisemitic underpinnings".

He also pledged to back unconditional military aid to Israel and embraced the endorsment of the hawkish pro-Israel group the Democratic Majority for Israel.

"Tonight, we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible," Warnock told supporters late on Tuesday.