The Senate's 'Gang of Five' moderates who could help pass — or kill — a Biden agenda

Jon Ward and Will Rahn
·9 min read

President-elect Joe Biden is likely to arrive in the White House two months from now with the advantage of low expectations.

Democrats would need to win both runoff elections in Georgia to gain control of the U.S. Senate. That’s a tall order.

If Democrats had a narrow 51-50 majority in the Senate (with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties in her role as president of the Senate), the party’s left flank would place pressure on Biden and the chamber’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, to pursue a scorched-earth policy of eliminating the legislative filibuster.

President-elect Joe Biden delivers a remarks on the economic recovery at the Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economic recovery on Monday. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Democrats would almost certainly be unable to do this. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already said he wouldn’t support getting rid of the ability of a minority in the Senate, made up of as few as 40 members, to block the passage of legislation. Manchin is not the only one who would be opposed, but he’s the most outspoken.

But the pressure to act would still be there if Democrats pull off a shocker in Georgia and take the Senate.

If the party loses one or both of the Jan. 5 elections in Georgia, the country will understand that a Democratic president will be able to get only so much done with a Republican Senate.

The political reality understood by those in Washington is that regardless of the Georgia results, Democrats won’t have an overwhelming hand to play, either in the Senate or the House, where their majority shrank by roughly a dozen seats in the Nov. 3 election, down from where it is now at 232-197.

So the next two years are unlikely to see the passage of sweeping new social or economic programs. Expect instead relatively narrow and incremental bills that chip away at big problems, and proposals that address uncontroversial issues such as infrastructure or higher education reform.

Ideas like the one to simplify the child tax allowance — and make sure that the poorest families can get access to it — may get a look. That was co-sponsored by a bipartisan pair: Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have also worked on that issue.

And the division of power between the presidency and Congress will invest great influence in a small number of legislators, a group we will call the Gang of Five.

Here’s who they are:

SUSAN COLLINS, R-MAINE

Sen. Susan Collins speaks to supporters at an election night event outside of the Hilton Garden Inn on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Sen. Susan Collins speaks to supporters at an election night event on Nov. 3. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Democrats spent a lot of money trying to defeat the venerable Maine centrist Republican Susan Collins this year. Her opponent, Sara Gideon, raised $69 million, much more than Collins, and led the incumbent in almost every poll conducted in the days, weeks and months before Election Day. But while Biden easily carried Maine, Collins won reelection to a fifth term in a landslide. And should Republicans hold onto the Senate, she is likely to become chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in a couple of years.

Collins has always run and voted like a middle-of-the-road pragmatist, using her seniority to push federal money to Maine while breaking with the rest of the GOP when she feels so inclined. Democrats were incensed when she cast the deciding vote to confirm Justice Neil Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, which they viewed as a betrayal of her pro-abortion-rights principles. (She opposed the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett earlier this year, but her vote didn’t change the outcome.)

Collins has had a sometimes fraught relationship with President Trump, but she voted to acquit him in his impeachment trial on what her opponents consider the specious grounds that the experience had taught him “a pretty big lesson.” Neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor the incoming Biden administration will be able to take her vote for granted on key pieces of legislation, meaning she’s set to remain one of Washington’s most important players as she starts a new six-year term.

JOE MANCHIN, D-W.VA.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, wears a protective mask while walking to the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Once something of a swing state, West Virginia took a hard right turn in the Trump years and became reliably, even overwhelmingly, Republican. Yet Manchin, who calls himself a conservative Democrat, has been winning in the Mountain State since he was elected governor in 2004, winning a second term in 2008. He moved on to the Senate in 2010, in a special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd. By way of reassuring West Virginians that he wouldn’t always follow the Democratic Party line, he released an ad that year in which he blew away a cap-and-trade climate bill with a rifle. He was elected to a full term in 2012 and reelected in 2018.

But if he wants to stay in office, he’ll have to fend off another Republican challenger in 2024, meaning he has every incentive to keep burnishing his moderate credentials. Look for him to be a key swing vote as the Biden administration seeks to move legislation though a closely split Senate.

LISA MURKOWSKI, R-ALASKA

Senator Lisa Murkowski(R-AK) asks a question during a US Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine covid-19, focusing on an update on the federal response in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2020. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski at a Senate hearing on Sept. 23. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

Not many lawmakers lose their party’s primary only to win reelection as a write-in candidate, but that’s exactly what Lisa Murkowski did in 2010. She was already an incumbent senator when a tea-party-backed conservative bested her in the GOP primary, but instead of throwing in the towel, Murkowski launched a long-shot write-in campaign and won reelection as an independent (caucusing with the Republicans).

Since then, she has arguably been the Senate’s most moderate Republican, frequently ignoring the GOP leadership and siding with Democrats on some key votes, including nominations to the Supreme Court. Her family has its own power base in Alaska — she was originally appointed to her Senate seat by her father, Frank, who had held it himself before he was elected governor in 2002. And because of that and her state’s isolation from what Alaskans call “the lower 48,” she’s been able to mostly dismiss threats from leaders of the national party that would have other senators running scared.

Murkowski and Collins are the two most powerful moderate Republicans in Congress, and will continue to be aggressively courted by both parties anytime there’s a bill facing a close vote in the Senate.

MITT ROMNEY, R-UTAH

Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Mitt Romney at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 30. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Unlike the other senators on this list, Romney is rather difficult to qualify as a true moderate. He was the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2012, after all, and holds conservative positions on most economic and social issues.

But the former Massachusetts governor and current Utah senator clearly detests Trump, whom he didn’t vote for either in 2016 or 2020. The two had a brief détente during the 2016 transition, when Romney was in the running — or was led to think he was in the running — to be Trump’s secretary of state, but he didn’t get it, and he has made a virtue of his independence ever since, as the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump at his impeachment trial.

Trump, for his part, commissioned a digital ad mocking Romney for losing the 2012 race.

So Romney enters the Biden era not so much a centrist, but more of an independent conservative who likely feels he has nothing to lose by ignoring the whims of his party. At 73, he’s unlikely to run for president again after two failed attempts, and he still has four years left in his current Senate term. Combine that with his uneasy relationship with the Trump wing of the GOP, and Romney will be a wild card to watch over the coming year.

KYRSTEN SINEMA, D-ARIZ.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, speaks during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on March 5. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Arizona — the home of Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Barry Goldwater — hadn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for 30 years before Sinema triumphed in 2018. Before that, she spent three terms in the House as a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats who tend to hail from Republican-leaning areas.

Although she got her start in politics as a Green Party spokesperson and Ralph Nader acolyte in the early 2000s, Sinema has since carefully crafted an image as a pragmatic dealmaker interested in bipartisan solutions. “A person who chooses to be a bomb thrower in the legislature is choosing to remove himself or herself from the work of the body: negotiating on bills, working to find compromises, and sometimes teaming up with unusual allies to promote or kill legislation,” Sinema wrote more than a decade ago in her book “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last.”

She ran for the Senate holding up Manchin as a role model and was hesitant to criticize Trump. And last year, when the Senate voted on the Green New Deal, she was one of three Democrats to oppose the measure, along with Manchin and Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. (Other Democrats, who noted that Republicans scheduled the vote as a political stunt, voted “present.”)

Sinema isn’t up for reelection until 2024, and in the most recent election Arizona went decidedly blue, voting for Biden and electing another Democratic senator in Mark Kelly. This all might mean that Sinema will return to her more progressive roots over the next year, but if she continues to occupy the Senate’s center lane, she and Manchin are likely to be two of the most heavily courted lawmakers in the new Congress.

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