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The Senate is the real name of the game

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Senate is the real name of the game
PHOTO: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

Trump seemingly couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted his two GOP Senate contenders to win the Georgia Senate seats or not. He badmouthed the GOP governor. He took a shot at one of the GOP contenders as not the best pick, since he didn’t pick her. He railed that because he couldn’t get the GOP officials to play along with him and scrap the vote and declare him the winner of the Georgia vote, then GOP voters should boycott the Senate contest. Then he deftly pivoted in a disjointed rally in Georgia for the GOP Senate candidates and took it all back.

Like everyone else, Trump knows the GOP’s iron-clad control of the Senate rides in grabbing the two seats. The GOP leaders, for their part, have ignored Trump’s bluster and bet the bank on winning big in Georgia. Money is no object, they will spend whatever it takes, and the party has flooded the state with armies of GOP polling experts, volunteers and party workers.

The Georgia election battle underscores why the Senate, not the House, or even the White House, is the real name of the game in American politics. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the de facto shadow boss of American government. He heads a Senate that’s been carefully and deliberately crafted as a firewall against a Democratic president. It’s a GOP-controlled Senate whose majority leadership can repeatedly delay, dither, obstruct, gut and torpedo initiatives and legislation of a Democratic president, from the budget to appointments, at nearly all levels.

The Senate is loaded with a labyrinth of arcane procedures and rules. This ensures that only the most moderate, finely honed, compromised legislation is passed. The Senate’s dominance doesn’t end with fine-tuned legislation but extends to appointments and confirmations.

The Senate is the sole determiner of who sits on the high court and lower court benches and who bags key federal agency spots. These are all top-grade posts that initiate, make, and implement crucial policy decisions after many congresspersons are long gone. The Senate Majority Leader has virtually dictatorial control over which of the president’s nominees are put to a confirmation vote.

The devastating result of that power was on full brute display with the dozens of judicial and agency posts that were endlessly delayed or outright sabotaged by the GOP-controlled Senate, from Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch to the absolute refusal of McConnell to consider any SCOTUS nominee who Obama proposed to replace Scalia.

The scuttle of Merrick Garland was a textbook example of a McConnell-controlled Senate’s power to say no to a president and make it stick. McConnell used his hammer lock on the nomination process to saber-rattle Obama about his choice of judges and agency picks. In effect he said if his Senate didn’t like one of his picks deemed too liberal — a minority or woman, or too much of a social activist — then dump them and get someone else whom they deem conservative and conciliatory.

McConnell will use the same template with Biden. In fact, he already has. He’s already dropped strong hints that some of Biden’s early picks are questionable. Again, that means they’re too liberal for his taste. The warning is clear: Drop them, or else. The “or else” is the real threat that they won’t be confirmed.

McConnell and GOP Senate leaders understand this little shell game can be played by two. When Harry Reid became Senate Majority Leader in January of 2007, he played hardball with several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, and delayed hearings.

A Democratic Senate Majority Leader would completely change the game. Everything from Biden’s cabinet, agency and judicial picks would sail through. Everything in Biden’s agenda from expanding the Affordable Care Act to comprehensive immigration reform would have a real shot at passage.

So, Trump’s initial talk about blowing off a Georgia vote, and name-calling of Georgia’s top GOP officials was like much else with Trump, pure hot air. McConnell and the GOP know this. They know that the Senate is the real name of the game, and they intend to do anything and everything to keep the game in their hands.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.