While the drama continues in Washington over whether Congress will approve a new coronavirus economic relief bill, we’re looking ahead. Come January, the 117th Congress will be seated at a time of remarkable uncertainty, even over which party controls the Senate, with decisive runoff elections looming in Georgia. But here’s what we do know: This Congress will have the most women ever and break new ground on racial diversity. With close margins in both chambers, it’s easy to expect gridlock, but there are surprising places where we could see real movement — beyond everyone’s favorite buzzword “infrastructure.” Read on for the most compelling new characters and what to expect in the months ahead.
A former New York City council member, Torres, 32, is the first gay Afro-Latino elected to Congress, and he arrives representing the most Democratic district in the country, based in the struggling South Bronx. A product of public housing himself, Torres is putting poverty atop his agenda, pushing the expansion of the child tax credit. He’s also been public about his struggles with depression as he advocates for improved mental health care.
2. Beth Van Duyne
As mayor of Irving, Texas, Van Duyne earned national attention for her attacks on Sharia law. She went on to serve in the Trump administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development before jumping into an open-seat race for Congress in the Dallas suburbs. Van Duyne, a 50-year-old single mother who has written columns for OZY, represents a key swing district — she won by fewer than 5,000 votes — and is worth watching to see how Republicans in tough races are leaning.
3. Mark Kelly
This former astronaut is getting a head start. Kelly, 56, who captained Space Shuttle Endeavour, has already been seated in the Senate to replace Arizona Republican Martha McSally, whose term expired early because she was appointed. That means the Democrat will be thrown into COVID-19 relief talks and get a chance to carve out an identity quickly. The husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt, Kelly will likely play a key role in gun control debates — and try to make time for the gym and his top-notch golf game.
4. Tommy Tuberville
The new senator from Alabama was best known as Auburn’s football coach before his first run for office this year, and then became known for avoiding interviews as he cruised past Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Looks like that was a wise move for his campaign team. In Tuberville’s first substantial postelection interview, he incorrectly said the three branches of government were “the House, the Senate and the executive.” In addition, he erroneously claimed Al Gore was named president-elect in 2000 and said World War II was a struggle against socialism, rather than fascism. With fewer and fewer senators stopping in the hall to gab with reporters these days, we’ll go ahead and predict that Tuberville, 66, will join the “call my press office” club.
This year’s AOC, a former middle school principal, took out a New York City stalwart, 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel, in Brooklyn. Bowman, 44, is already pushing back against Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks for not being progressive enough, saying the mention of possible jobs for Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed “makes my skin crawl.” This new force on the left to be reckoned with made waves this summer on The Carlos Watson Show, showing off his NBA and hip-hop acumen.
She may carry the highest profile of any new member, as the QAnon congresswoman. Greene, 46, has expressed support in the past for the dangerous conspiracy theory that Democrats and world leaders are Satan-worshipping pedophiles, though she’s lately tried to distance herself from it. But she is full-on against wearing masks to stop COVID-19, and surely will generate her share of outlandish headlines in the coming months whether she utters the letter “Q” or not. Even her workout selfies come with spice.
7. Ben Ray Luján
After moving up from the House, the 11th-generation son of New Mexico is the fifth Latino senator — far less representative than the U.S. population as a whole but giving Luján outsized influence in Latino politics. Luján, 48, who lives on a small farm, will also be a major advocate for Native American land rights.
8. Michelle Park Steel
The Orange County, California, Republican is one of a trio of new victors who will be the first Korean-American women to serve in Congress. After immigrating to the U.S. from South Korea as a young adult, Steel, 65, rose through the ranks of California GOP politics and arrives in Washington saying she will join a new Republican grouping called the “Freedom Force” that’s meant as a counterweight to “The Squad” of liberal House Democrats. (This should not be confused with the right-wing Freedom Caucus, in the freedom-loving House GOP.)
9. Carolyn Bourdeaux
If you’re looking for ground zero in the changing Georgia that will be on display in the U.S. Senate runoffs, you’ll find it in the diversifying Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, where Boudreaux, 50, snatched a long-held GOP seat — one of few Democratic pickups in the country. The Georgia State University public policy professor, whose low-key style helped deflect attacks that she was a liberal extremist, says she won by focusing like a laser on COVID-19 and turning out new voters.
10. Maria Elvira Salazar
South Florida Latinos powered Trump’s victory in the Sunshine State and flipped two congressional seats for the GOP. One of them will be held by this former Univision anchor and five-time Emmy winner who ran as a moderate on social issues but is a fierce foe of socialism. Salazar, 59, is sharp on camera and is already making the media rounds as a fresh GOP face.
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What if the Federal Reserve started printing bytes instead of paper money? The notion of a digital dollar is gaining ground in both parties as a way to reduce fees from card processors, while helping the underbanked — those $1,200 COVID-19 checks would have been much simpler coming as digital dollars — and making online transactions as quick as handing over cash. It would also help America compete with China, which is already testing its digital yuan. Other areas of bipartisan hope on tech include establishing a secure digital identity for Americans accessing government services online.
2. Eminent Domain
Nothing sounds more serious than the government seizing private citizens’ land for its own use. Yet eminent domain is permitted by the Fifth Amendment, so long as Uncle Sam provides “just compensation.” That stipulation was used to justify Trump’s border wall land grabs during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things. And it’s a surprisingly bipartisan concern. For Democrats, it’s a chance to fight back against dubiously “necessary” pipeline projects, as Oregon’s two Democratic U.S. senators are proposing. And Republicans want to keep bureaucrats from taking their land against their will, whether it’s a Trump-voting Nebraska farmer or a community of nature-loving Georgia conservatives whose farms and backyards contain thousand-year-old cypress trees.
The Democrat-run House on Friday voted to decriminalize marijuana, though the Senate will surely take a pass. Still, after voters in five more states (including Mississippi!) legalized weed in some form this fall, the pressure will continue to amp up on Congress to address the glaring problems with the disconnect between state and federal law when it comes to issues like banking for marijuana businesses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a backer of his home state of Kentucky’s hemp industry, and has signaled some willingness to listen to pot business owners.
4. The Trump Reforms
The Biden administration will have thorny questions to address about how to deal with the fallout from the Trump presidency, and whether the Department of Justice could or should prosecute the president and others in his orbit. But Congress too has a cleanup mission, should they choose to accept it. Many of the norms Trump flouted were popular with both parties but not codified into law. So Congress could step in with tougher laws to restrain the executive by getting tougher on mixing personal financial interests with governing, building a firewall between the White House and the Department of Justice, even requiring presidents to reveal their tax returns. One complication: Trump is likely to remain a relevant political actor as he teases or declares a 2024 presidential run, and if these votes would be seen as slaps against Trump, it’s hard to see many Republicans joining in.
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Back on the campaign trail for the first time since the election, Trump had two messages Saturday night down in Valdosta, Georgia: The November election was rigged and Georgia’s Republican leaders are allowing it to happen, but you still have to vote Republican in January. And after a lot of angst about calls from figures like pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood to boycott the runoff, it does appear that hardcore Trump voters are still planning to turn out. And that’s what the GOP senators are counting on, as Kelly Loeffler spent Sunday night’s debate time and again accusing Raphael Warnock of being a “radical liberal” while ducking questions about whether Trump won.
2. Numbers to Know
None of the four candidates — GOP Sens. Loeffler and David Perdue, and Democrats Warnock and Jon Ossoff — is wasting a ton of time trying to woo voters from the other side. This vote is all about which party can drag more of its partisans back to the polling booth and mitigate a major drop-off. Typically this favors Georgia Republicans, but the gap is narrowing. In the Georgia 2008 Senate runoff, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won by 57-43 percent, as turnout dropped from 3.7 million in the general election to 2.1 million in the runoff. In 2018, the lower-profile secretary of state’s race went to a runoff, where turnout dropped from 3.9 million to 1.5 million and Republican Brad Raffensberger won 52-48. One factor to consider: Consistent voters who don’t drop off between elections tend to be whiter and better educated than those who skip nonpresidential votes, and Republicans have been losing well-educated whites to Democrats while picking up working-class voters in a reshaping of the party coalitions. Translation? Democrats could be better positioned for success in midterms and special elections like this runoff than they used to be.
3. The Sh*thole Country Vote
A rapidly diversifying Georgia is now home to some 40,000 voters who are naturalized citizens from Africa. For Ethiopian-born organizer Bethlehem Fleming, Trump’s comment about “sh*thole countries” and his flippant remark that Egypt could bomb a dam in Ethiopia turned her strongly against the president. Now she’s targeting her fellow Ethiopians to convince them to turn out again, and turn the Senate blue.
If Republicans win at least one seat in Georgia and narrowly hold on to the Senate, Mitch McConnell will hold most of the cards to decide what moves. But you’re also going to hear a ton from the three most likely crossover votes among Republican senators. Utah's Mitt Romney, a key Trump critic, is ideologically conservative but also an independent thinker with his own distinct brand. Susan Collins just won reelection in Maine on the backs of tens of thousands of Biden voters who split their tickets. And Lisa Murkowski won reelection as a write-in in 2010 after losing a Republican primary, meaning she can tell the national party to shove it whenever she likes. Ahead of Murkowski’s 2022 reelection, maintaining her independent brand will be on her mind, though a pro-Trump Republican (Sarah Palin, perhaps?) will surely primary her.
Say the Democrats do pull off both Georgia victories. The most important senator then becomes West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the Democratic former governor who persists in a red state because of a penchant for bucking his party at major moments and doing things like literally shooting a climate bill in an ad. As the most conservative Democrat, he would be the most sought-after swing vote in a 50-50 Senate, and he’s already said he has no interest in junking the filibuster power or expanding the Supreme Court — puncturing liberal dreams.
3. Problem Solvers Caucus
This group of 50 House members of both parties has been something of a joke on Capitol Hill: Power in the House resides almost entirely with party leaders, followed by the extreme flanks of either party who can sink legislation they don’t like and command big media profiles with their fiery rhetoric. But all of a sudden the Problem Solvers Caucus has juice, given how their $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill is gaining traction in the lame-duck session. In a closely divided Congress, they could be an unlikely fount of ideas both parties can live with.
4. Nancy Pelosi
Try to tear her down all you want. She’s an elitist who gets her hair styled during COVID and eats expensive ice cream, while also stifling progressives and ruling with an imperial style. She proclaimed victory even as her caucus shockingly lost seats this fall. And yet Pelosi, 80, is the immovable rock of Democrats in Congress because she delivers. Having pushed Obamacare over the finish line in 2010 and outfoxed Donald Trump on budget negotiations, what’s next for her final act ahead of a promised retirement from the speakership in 2022? Whatever it is, she’ll call the shots.