(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DETROW: And it is 8:40 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday, January 6. And we are doing an early podcast, the first of two in your feeds today, because, well, because a major upset in Georgia could rewrite the script on the first two years of the Biden administration. The AP has called one Georgia Senate runoff for Democrat Raphael Warnock. In the other, Democrat Jon Ossoff has a lead of a little less than 17,000. He has declared victory himself, but the AP and other outlets have not yet called the race for him.
But, Kelsey, if Ossoff does win as well, the Democrats control the Senate. And that's - I mean, we cannot overstate how big of a difference that would make for the next few years.
SNELL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the difference between having control of the Senate and having a near control of the Senate is like a completely different universe, in part because it means that Democrats would have control over what gets on the Senate floor. And that puts a lot of pressure on, you know, House Democrats and for the party to come together about making priorities about what could actually become law. So Democrats have to really start thinking now about what, you know, what their vision for legislating will be because by and large, Congress hasn't really been legislating lately. This is a completely different world.
LIASSON: And a completely different world because Democrats want to legislate. Republicans usually want to appoint judges and lower taxes and regulations. But also, this now throws the hot potato into the Democrats' lap, which is, yes, you control the floor and you are running the committees, but that doesn't mean with a 50-50 Senate you can pass "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal and the progressive wish list. You still are going to have those handful of centrist senators in the middle who are the balance of power.
DETROW: Kelsey, Warnock will be just the 11th Black U.S. senator. We saw a lot of signs that Black turnout was up even from November, particularly in rural parts of Georgia. We also saw Democrats continue to do really well in the Atlanta suburbs and really turn out the vote in areas that just a few years ago were Republican. I mean, Democrats - this is the exact formula they've talked about for years, and it worked. And it could give them two U.S. senators from the state of Georgia.
SNELL: Democrats have been saying for years it's about Black voters and it's about the suburbs. And that was absolutely, like you said, what happened here. And, you know, Warnock was on Morning Edition this morning, and he was very clear.
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RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Welcome to the new Georgia. It is more diverse. It is more inclusive. And it readily embraces the future. And I'm the product of that, among other signs, that you can see right on the ground here in this state.
SNELL: It's going to be challenging for Democrats to replicate the success they are seeing right now, in part because voters were really fired up about creating a challenge to Trump. They wanted to make sure that Democrats won the Senate. They - you know, we heard over and over and over again in the messaging from Democrats that everything was on the line. The integrity of the election was on the line. They said that the future of climate was on the line. They said the future of just about every policy the Democrats want is on the line with this Senate election. That is not something that you can keep telling voters over and over and over again...
SNELL: ...And expect them to stay as energized.
LIASSON: We'd be remiss if we didn't talk about Stacey Abrams. She had a vision for Georgia. She understood that if you could register people who normally didn't vote - mostly young people, minorities, new immigrants to the state - you could win. And she did. And don't forget; Democrats overperformed their turnout in November. That's unheard of. In runoffs, people usually stay home, but that didn't happen here.
DETROW: On that note, what is the state of things with the Ossoff-Perdue race, which we should point out is for a six-year Senate term? This is not the special election. Warnock's going to have to run again in two years. Ossoff leads by about 17,000 votes right now. What do we know about that race, and what can we expect in the next few days?
SNELL: We know that Ossoff has declared victory but that this has just not been called yet. You know, if they are - if Ossoff is able to keep a lead of more than half a percentage point, he would avoid a recount. But right now, I'm looking at our dashboard. At the moment that we are recording this, 98% of the vote is in. But there's still votes to be counted, and we're waiting.
DETROW: And as we remember from just a couple months ago, Georgia has a big window for military ballots to come in, among other things. So do not expect we will have a hard answer on that race in the immediate future.
Hey, Mara, you know, it turns out if you attack the integrity of an election for two months and you tell your base that elections are rigged and you call on the governor and secretary of state in a state to resign, turns out that could hurt your party's chances of winning two key Senate races, huh?
LIASSON: Yup. You know, Republicans went from feeling pretty triumphant 'cause they did pretty well down-ballot in November to forming the kind of circular firing squad that we're more familiar with with Democrats. So there's a lot of Republicans today who think that Trump hurt them. They weren't able to deliver the message they wanted, which is, don't give Biden a blank check; that's why we need a Republican Senate. Pretty hard to do that when the president is saying that he didn't actually lose and Biden didn't win.
There are a whole host of reasons that this went wrong, but I don't think Trump can escape blame for causing so many divisions in the Republican Party and depressing turnout because he told Republicans, don't bother to come out, in effect, because this election is corrupt.
SNELL: In some ways, Republican strategists, a lot of people who, you know, used to be on Capitol Hill and have found their ways into the, you know, the greater Washington circle were pre-criticizing President Trump for this, anticipating that this might happen, basically saying that if the Republicans lose the Senate, that they're placing all the blame at his feet.
LIASSON: Right. And, you know, the other thing is there's going to be a huge debate, and it's going to go on for months, if not years. But is the takeaway from this that Trumpism is a bad thing for the party, Trump is a factor that helps Democrats get energized? Or is the takeaway going to be that the Republican Party needs Trump himself on the ticket to do well down-ballot?
DETROW: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, more about what this means for Washington, D.C., and for Joe Biden's agenda.
All right, and we are back. We talked about this before, but we're going to get into more detail. Even though the Senate would be 50-50 if Ossoff does win, Democrats would have control over the Senate because Kamala Harris would break ties. That means Democrats get to set the agenda. Among other things, this means there won't be questions about whether Joe Biden would even get a chance to confirm judges.
LIASSON: Confirm judges or confirm his Cabinet. I mean...
LIASSON: ...A Senate majority, even a razor-thin one, is a huge deal. Yes, he could confirm judges since the Republican - especially for the Supreme Court. If he wants to use the tool of budget reconciliation, which is a legislative tool that allows you to pass legislation with just 50 votes, no filibuster, he could pass a lot of things. Now, what he probably can't do is pass the big, bold progressive wish list, Medicare for All - he didn't even run on that - the Green New Deal, packing the court. But for the pragmatic, center-left agenda that Biden has outlined, he now has a fighting chance.
SNELL: I think there still will be a lot of pressure from progressives, though, to..
LIASSON: Yeah, for sure.
SNELL: ...To take action on this. I mean, we have seen in the time between when the election was called for Biden and today that both sides, the moderates and the progressives, have tried to take credit for Biden winning. And to some degree, they do take credit in different places in this country. And I think this is - if anything, if Ossoff wins, it turns a huge spotlight on the divisions within the Democratic Party about, you know, who they are, who their - what makes them win and what the future of the country is and what the future of their party is.
LIASSON: And just remember; Barack Obama had 59 Democratic senators and still could barely pass Obamacare.
LIASSON: I would really direct people to the Warnock interview that we did on Morning Edition because he was asked about the Green New Deal, and he very carefully did not say that he was for it.
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WARNOCK: I think that we need common-sense reform on a whole range of issues. There's no question that climate change is real. There's work we need to do on that front. And I'll be focused on getting that work done. I think too often, even in the places where there is agreement, at least among ordinary people, that we need movement, we get no movement.
LIASSON: He did not run as a left-wing progressive.
DETROW: So quick question on timeline here. These races are pretty close. I assume it's going to take a while for them to be certified and finalized and have these senators appointed. There's also the fact that Democrats wouldn't actually have that tie-breaking vote until January 20. This is going to take a while to be sorted out, right?
SNELL: Oh, yeah. And, you know, one of the things that I think we can't hammer home enough is that the Senate can't even do anything until these senators are sworn in. So they're just kind of in a state of - you know, they're basically frozen. They can't constitute committees. They can't get to work. They can't start processing any of Biden's nominees. So there's going to be a little bit of a delay to the start of this Congress.
DETROW: Mara, one of the things that you regularly remind us is even when we think we know exactly what we're talking about, there's a chance that we don't.
LIASSON: Big chance.
DETROW: What did you learn from last night's elections that you thought was different before?
LIASSON: Covering politics is a regular reminder that everything you thought you knew was wrong. So we - Democrats went into November thinking that big-turnout elections help them. Didn't turn out that way. Big-turnout election in November, and a lot of Republicans turned out, and they won a lot of down-ballot races. This time, everyone thought that if it was a high day-of turnout election in Georgia, it would play out in the Republicans' favor, just like it did in November. Well, guess what. It was a super high Election Day turnout, and Democrats did really well.
DETROW: And there are so many questions - we have mentioned a few of them; we will keep talking about them - about what the Republican Party does going forward. One of the first opportunities to make choices comes in just a few hours, of course. The Electoral College votes will be tabulated in Congress. Several Republicans on the House side, on the Senate side are going to object and try to overturn the results of a free and fair election. The votes will not be there to do that. Joe Biden will end the day as the official president-elect. But there are a lot of questions about what this means going forward. And I think, to me, there are a lot of questions about, does this rejection of Trumpism, if you even want to frame it that way, in Georgia affect how Republicans are thinking about what they do today and what they do going forward?
And we will be back in your feeds at some point later today talking about that vote and everything that comes out of it. But for now, I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DETROW: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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