On Tuesday night, Democrat Doug Jones pulled off a major upset in Alabama’s special election to fill the Senate seat Jeff Sessions left vacant when he became Donald Trump’s attorney general. Jones will become the first Democratic senator from deep red Alabama since 1992; more importantly, at least in the short term, he will also narrow the GOP’s control of the Senate from 52 of 100 votes to just 51.
It’s tempting to read this shift as a huge upset for the Republican agenda, in part because Trump spent the lead-up to the election insisting that Jones would be a one-man disaster for his MAGA agenda. And Jones really may change strategic calculations in the Senate. But probably not in time to affect the battle over the much-criticized Republican tax package, the most pressing legislative fight of the moment.
Jones cannot take his senate seat immediately. Counties in Alabama have until December 22 to file their polling results, the same day the Senate is supposed to start its end-of-year recess. If no counties file late, state officials expect to certify the election results between December 26 and January 3. This may be delayed if Jones’s opponent Roy Moore, who still refuses to concede, can convince officials to do a recount—and cough up the cash to pay for it. Once the results are certified, leaders in the Senate will have to settle on a day to swear Jones in. In the most likely scenario, he won’t take his seat until Congress comes back into session in early January.
Democrats have called on Republicans to wait for Jones to take his seat to vote on a new tax bill, which reconciles the differences between recently passed versions in the House and Senate. It’s only right, the logic goes, to reflect the decisions of the Alabama electorate. For comparison, the Democratic Senate waited to vote on the Affordable Care Act in 2010 until newly elected Republican Scott Brown took his seat after a flipping a Democratic seat in a Massachusetts special election.
But it doesn’t appear the GOP will heed that precedent. As Congress watcher John Johannes recently told me, “Republicans will try to rush this through before Jones is sworn in.” They reached a provisional agreement on a new bill on Wednesday, a day after the Alabama election. Ideally, they plan to pass this new legislation through the Senate early next week, then through the House, getting it on Trump’s desk before Christmas, in line with their ambitious initial timeline. (Many experts didn’t think they would get it done that quickly.)
Republicans don’t have much margin for error. Their first bill passed in the Senate 51-49, with the sole Republican defection from Bob Corker, whose concerns about increasing the deficit are reportedly not resolved by the new bill. “For things to go wrong,” said legislative affairs expert Molly Reynolds, “two GOP Senators would have to throw some sand in the gears.” (Update: Shortly after this piece was published, Corker declared he would vote for the bill after all.)
Two Republican senators, John McCain and Thad Cochran, have been recently absent due to health issues. They’re expected to return in time for a vote next week, but if not they could delay the push. Maine Senator Susan Collins could flip to a no vote; she agreed to vote for the last bill in exchange for a promise that the Senate would vote on two bills seeking to stabilize the Affordable Care Act, but House Speaker Paul Ryan has been hinting he might not honor that deal and the White House has been backing away from it. And any other number of issues could come up, as final tweaks are made to the legislation. High-ranking Republicans have admitted this week that their proposed timeline is hardly solid. (Republicans did overcome one obstacle when they reportedly satisfied Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s demand for an expanded child tax credit.)
Reynolds is skeptical anything will fully derail the current Republican timeline. The specter of Jones further upending things in January has created newfound pressure to put heads together, make sacrifices, and move forward to score a big win while the GOP still can. Even if Republicans miss their initial deadline, they could delay their recess, hammer out niggling issues, and pass something on or after Christmas—before Jones enters the picture.
The good news for Democrats is that Jones could scramble Republican plans for 2018. Republican leaders have been talking in recent weeks about using reconciliation rules to take another whack at killing the ACA and launching a fresh initiative to reform welfare programs using simple majority, party-line votes in the Senate at the top of the new year.
But the GOP really just planned to re-launch the same framework they tried to use to take down the ACA in September. Two Republican senators still openly oppose this bill, so with Jones in the mix the GOP leadership would need to flip one of them or get a Democrat to vote against his or her party (which is obviously unlikely).
And when it comes to welfare reform or other controversial initiatives dependent on simple majority votes that might emerge in 2018, the narrowed margin Jones represents will make it easier for moderate Republicans, arch-conservatives, or mavericks to take a hard line on their pet projects and peculiar demands. That will make it harder for Republican leaders to strike deals.
Some analysts speculate that, by complicating the Republican strategy of focusing on big wins via simple majority, party-line votes, Jones could push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to refocus onto bipartisan deal making, perhaps even in the form of an infrastructure bill. But none of the experts I spoke to put much stock in this cheery vision of cooperation and progress.
“Even if the Republican leadership is pushed slightly toward the center,” said Mike Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute, “Democrats have no reason to be bipartisan. Democrats can only gain from further Republican failure” leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. “Moreover, the activist base of the Democratic Party is pushing Dems further and further to the left. Dems would risk a major party split, jeopardizing potential 2018 gains, if they were seen to compromise too much.”
Tanner and others I spoke to agreed that the GOP would also worry about infighting and losses in the 2018 election if conservatives saw them bending toward liberal ideas. “Prediction: more gridlock,” said Tanner, “accompanied by more apocalyptic rhetoric.”
There probably would have been gridlock even without Jones. If Moore had one in Alabama there would have likely been an ethics probe into his history of allegedly dating and assaulting teens. But also, “2018 is an election year,” Tanner noted. “Nothing big or controversial ever gets done in an election year.”
The elections are where Jones’s victory will have its real impact. Not only could he put the GOP in a (perhaps just slightly) worse position to sell itself as competent, he’s restored Democratic hope in the prospect of taking back the Senate. Weeks ago, I wrote about how the Democrats had no chance of winning the Senate and just a slim chance of winning the House due to miserable electoral math facing them in the midterms. But Jones gives them an extra Senate seat, and, by so doing, opens a plausible path for the Democrats to take the majority. Maybe more importantly, Jones has fired up Democrats to throw down in those races, rather than just defend their seats, and provided them with a potential template win those races. Meanwhile, Republicans will struggle with not just a legacy of inactivity, but even more infighting between establishment candidates and Moore-style insurgents.
“The Democrats are much more enthused and more likely to turn out in substantial, even unusual, numbers” in the elections, thanks to Jones, said Johannes. “High turnout next November will cost the Republicans their majorities.”
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