With their upset victories in this week’s Georgia runoffs, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will soon become the 49th and 50th members of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate — which means that Democrats will soon control the world’s greatest deliberative body for the first time since 2015.
But exactly when will that transfer of power happen?
It’s a tricky question for a few reasons. For one thing, the current Congress — America’s 117th — has already convened without Warnock and Ossoff. For another, it will take some time for Georgia to certify its election results. And then there’s the not insignificant matter of who actually “controls” the 100-member Senate when both parties hold 50 seats.
The simplest way to untangle all of these knots is in chronological order. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Ossoff leads incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue by 0.83 percent; Warnock leads incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 1.7 percent.
The remaining absentee and provisional ballots come from predominantly Democratic counties, so these margins won’t likely fall below the 0.5 percent threshold required to trigger a recount. That’s one delay that’s off the table.
The next step is for every county in Georgia to certify the results of its election. Their deadline is 5 p.m. on Jan. 15. After that, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has until Jan. 22 to officially certify the statewide results.
Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who serves as Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, said Wednesday that there was “no evidence of any irregularities” in the runoff.
“We’ve seen nothing that seems real in any way, shape or form, honestly.” Sterling added.
Once their wins are certified, Warnock and Ossoff will present their certificates of election and take the prescribed oath of office in an open session of the Senate. Then they will be U.S. senators.
Whenever that happens — again, no earlier than Jan. 15 and no later (give or take) than Jan. 22 — Democrats will hold 50 seats, counting two independents, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King, who caucus with the Democrats. But they won’t actually have a majority until California Sen. Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president on Jan. 20 and her appointed successor, Alex Padilla, fills her Senate seat.
Why? Because “control” of a Senate that’s split 50-50 between the two parties is determined by the partisan affiliation of the sitting vice president of the United States, who also serves as president of the Senate and holds the chamber’s tiebreaking 51st vote.
And so if Warnock and Ossoff are seated before Jan. 20, Democrats will have as many senators on their side as Republicans — but Vice President Mike Pence will still be Senate president and Republican Mitch McConnell will still be majority leader.
On Jan. 20, however, Pence will leave office. At that point, Harris will assume the vice presidency and Democrats will take control of the Senate — unless, of course, Warnock and Ossoff haven’t been seated yet.
In short, Warnock, Ossoff, Harris and Padilla all have to be sworn in before Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York can become Senate majority leader, with the power to decide what bills will be considered and which nominees for judgeships and posts in the administration will be confirmed. The earliest that could happen is Jan. 20; the latest, depending on when Georgia certifies its results, is sometime around Jan. 22.
Either way, Democratic control isn’t assured for long. Thirty-four seats will be up for grabs in November 2022 — including Warnock’s. Last year, Loeffler was appointed to fill the seat of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019. Warnock’s prize for defeating Loeffler in Tuesday’s special-election runoff is that he gets to serve out the remainder of Isakson’s unexpired term, which ends on Jan. 3, 2023.
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