Column: Ossoff and Schumer Launch Us Into New Era

Three senators, two of them Jewish, can be credited with launching America into a new political era. 

Five hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as our 46 th president on Jan. 20, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock took their oaths of office, sealing Democratic control of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. 

Ossoff and Warnock then tossed the ball to Chuck Schumer, who automatically became majority leader of the Senate with plans to implement much of President Biden’s agenda. Schumer is leading 47 other Democratic senators and two independents.. In the case of 50-50 tie votes, which could happen every day for the next two years, Vice President Kamala Harris will be available to break ties. 

We are indeed in a new era just by virtue of ending Trump’s presidency and preventing further damage to America. How far this new era can extend depends on what the Democratic coalition accomplishes and whether the Republicans succeed in blocking much of the legislation driven by Biden and Democrats who now control the majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. 

Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have an advantage that few leaders can claim. It is called the public will. Voters did not cast their ballots to reject Trump and elect Biden. They fervently voted with hopes for a better future. 

Presidents Clinton and Obama could claim groundswells of support, but a great many Americans formed a tsunami-like intent on transforming the nation in combination with ending the pandemic crisis. Biden is not a particularly charismatic figure, and it is evident that he understands the mood of the majority. 

Our brand-new president has demonstrated a low-key, word-sparing style. So far, he has addressed the public directly with few flourishes in short-but-sweet pronouncements. People need not wonder what he is talking about. Unlike other presidents, he wastes no time getting to the point. 

I think Biden recognizes that the American public regards him as an instrument to fulfill their dreams for how the national leadership can improve their lives. Perhaps they would rather be led by someone like the more engaging Beto O’Rourke, but Biden is sufficient. 

Voters strived hard to elect candidates whose help they need. Turnout expanded enough in Georgia to elect Ossoff and Warnock in the Jan. 5 runoff elections. Without them, Biden’s legislative program might be crippled. Republicans would otherwise maintain control of the Senate and likely obstruct much of Biden’s plans. Now, with both the House and Senate under their control, Democrats have a reasonable chance of achieving their goals. 

Trump was by all means a horrible president, yet I found it harder living in this country during past Republican administrations. True, Trump was worse than Ronald Reagan and both the elder George Bush and George W. Bush. Reagan introduced a hard-right agenda that worsened with each Republican administration, leading directly to Trump’s tenure. 

Reagan’s two terms were accompanied by a cultural form of subjugation. A kind of groupthink consumed the nation. Dissent was limited. People who even questioned conservative policies were labeled, at best, “liberals” as if it is a dirty word. I often felt isolated. 

Even by the time George W. Bush took office, protests were again minimal. In October 2002, Congress approved the invasion of Iraq, arguably America’s most destructive foreign military action since the Vietnam war. Opposing voices were few. I was against the war because Bush would not offer a sensible rationale, nor would anyone assess the risks. 

Low voter turnout in Philadelphia contributed to Republican victories in Pennsylvania. Sen. Pat Toomey was elected and re-elected in 2010 and 2016 by narrow margins thanks to voter apathy in Philadelphia. 

As awful as were Trump’s actions, at least the American people never allowed him to feel too comfortable. Opposition to Trump was overwhelming during his single presidential term and his 2016 campaign. A sleeping giant had awakened. I was torn between appreciation for the people’s activism, and my anger that long-term apathy paved the way for Trump’s streak of power. 

The existing filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote threshold to pass legislation, threatens to obstruct much of what Democrats hope to do. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lost the first round with Schumer when he withdrew his demand on Tuesday that Democrats retain the filibuster. He claims he surrendered because two Democrats from more conservative states vowed they would not vote to eliminate the filibuster under any circumstances. 

Appealing for “minority rights, McConnell told the Associated Press, “Destroying the filibuster would drain comity and consent from this body to a degree that would be unparalleled in living memory.”

What comity and consent? The filibuster already cost our nation a gun control law and a provision for a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

The filibuster was enacted in 1917 requiring a 67-vote ceiling for legislation, later changed to 60 votes. The filibuster traces back to 1805 when Aaron Burr, then the departing vice president, called on the Senate to eliminate a rule that automatically cut off floor debate, and the Senate did just that the following year. 

McConnell no doubt figures that the word of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona saves him some humiliation, but he must understand that they could still change their minds if Republicans again exploit the filibuster. 

“It’s an obstacle to progress and justice,” said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, as quoted in The New York Times. 

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver major improvements in people’s lives,” Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats told the Times. “If they don’t reform the filibuster, they could squander this moment.” 

There could be further opportunities to gut the filibuster. At this rate, I think that expansion of Senate control tilts for the Democrats in 2022 when Senate seats are up for re-election in five battleground states – Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In the interim, if any vacancies arise in the next two years, nine GOP senators represent states with Democratic governors; of course, what those governors can do depends on their states’ procedures for replacing senators. 

Movie fans who watched James Stewart’s iconic filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” no doubt thought it was wonderful to have the filibuster. I trust nobody will confuse Mitch McConnell with James Stewart.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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