Democrats won control of the U.S. Senate last week by winning two races in Georgia, a development that will boost President-elect Joe Biden’s chances of confirming cabinet picks and enacting some of his agenda.
The flip in Senate control also has ramifications for Democrats in Minnesota’s congressional delegation. The state’s lawmakers will now have far more power, particularly Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
While Klobuchar was not tapped to join Biden’s cabinet as some had speculated, she’s in line to chair the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee. It’s a panel that oversees how the chamber is run — but also federal elections and campaign finance issues.
Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said leading the Senate’s rules committee is not typically considered to be one of the most powerful posts in Congress. But Senate operations and elections are two topics that are “critically important right now” in the wake of a Capitol breach over baseless allegations of election fraud.
“I think this may be a historically busy and significant time for the Rules Committee,” Pearson said.
What Klobuchar might pursue in her new role
Pearson said Klobuchar’s job leading election oversight comes at a time when Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply over federal elections issues.
Faith in the presidential election declined amid unfounded attacks from President Trump this year, leading some in the Senate to object to the results and push for audits or investigations into claims of fraud.
“Some of my key priorities as the Chair of the Rules Committee — which has jurisdiction over federal elections — will be to make voting easier and more secure and to halt the flood of special interest and dark money that is drowning out the voices of the American people,” Klobuchar said in a written statement Sunday.
A top focus, according to her Senate office, is a massive package of legislation known as H.R. 1. The bill, which Democrats deem the For the People Act, touches on ballot access, campaign finance transparency, and anti-corruption measures. For instance, it would ban purges of voter registration rolls, automatically register voters and make election day a federal holiday. It would also require presidential candidates to release 10 years of their federal tax returns.
Republicans have criticized H.R. 1 for many reasons, arguing, for instance, against a provision to restore voting rights to people who served sentences for felonies and saying restrictions on purging voter rolls would make it harder to ensure voters are legally allowed to vote.
Klobuchar also intends to push her Honest Ads Act, which aims to increase transparency in who pays for online political advertisements by subjecting them to the same disclosure rules that have long governed TV and radio ads. The measure was a response to Russia buying political ads in the 2016 presidential election and is intended in part to prevent people and governments outside the U.S. from buying ads to influence American elections. The bill is also sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina.
Klobuchar’s office said the Democrat hopes to modernize election infrastructure and cybersecurity, in part by giving more federal money to help states administer elections, and setting minimum standards for elections, including by requiring paper ballots and audits.
Even with a Senate majority, Democrats still face hurdles to passing legislation, namely the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in the Senate to pass many types of bills. Democrats will control the chamber by using Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to break the 50-50 tie, and are expected to use budget rules to pass some measures with a simple majority.
Pearson said leading the Rules committee is a notable job “especially in the current moment where we need everyone to have faith in our electoral system.”
The administration of the Senate, including security, falls under the Senate’s jurisdiction, so Klobuchar will have a powerful role in light of the events of last week, when a mob of extremists breached security and overtook the U.S. Capitol.
“That gives her really the top perch in pursuing those things and working to make the Senate secure,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at the Cook Political Report. “Certainly the first thing will be looking at what happened on Wednesday and making sure that the Capitol is safe again.”
In her statement, Klobuchar said she planned to hold hearings with Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I have announced our intention to hold hearings and conduct joint oversight of the breach of the Capitol on January 6 and work to make the necessary reforms to ensure this never happens again.”
Klobuchar is also on the Senate Judiciary Committee where, during the Trump Administration, she earned a reputation for tough questioning of the president’s Supreme Court nominees.
While Democrats on the judiciary committee are unlikely to oppose Biden’s nominees to the high court in quite the same way, Democrats, now in the majority, will play a big role in getting judicial nominees through the Senate confirmation process, Taylor said.
If attorney general-appointee Merrick Garland is confirmed, the Judiciary Committee will be involved in confirming his successor to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a high-profile opening, Taylor said, among other federal judicial posts.
What Democratic control of the Senate means in the House
Democratic control of the Senate also has implications for some Minnesota members of the U.S. House, who will have a better shot of getting legislation to the president’s desk.
Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, from Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District, will be the delegation’s most powerful House member, Pearson said. McCollum chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, where she has oversight of budget issues at several federal agencies. McCollum has been involved in battles over extraction on public lands and is pushing legislation to ban copper-nickel mining from the Rainy River watershed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Pearson said McCollum is also close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is “quite well-positioned” to hold sway in the new Congress.
Still, Pearson said the biggest shift in power in the House happened when Democrat Collin Peterson lost to new GOP Rep. Michelle Fischbach in the 7th Congressional District. Peterson chaired the influential House Agriculture Committee, and would have had even greater power in the new Congress had he kept his seat. “No members of the current delegation have come anywhere near that level of influence when it comes to agriculture policy,” Pearson said.
It’s possible committee assignments will change, but both Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed in 2017 and won re-election to her first full term in November, have sat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, a committee that’s important to Minnesota, given the size of its agricultural economy. (Smith hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to chair a committee, Pearson said, since those posts are awarded largely through seniority.)
“Especially given [former Minnesota Seventh District Rep.] Collin Peterson’s defeat in the House, I think having two Minnesotans, if they both remain on the committee, or at least one of them on there is important to the state,” Taylor said. “Certainly because you’re losing that top influence in the House.”