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2020 Election Guide: State of Play and What it means for 2021

Updated: 4 November, 12:06 P.M. ET

The polls have closed in the United States for the 2020 election, but the battle for the White House and control of the Senate remains undecided as key states continue to count an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots. The only thing that appears certain in Washington is that uncertainty will reign as those ballots are counted and potentially litigated.  

Several scenarios for control of both the White House and Senate are still in play, with significant implications from a policy perspective for the Lame Duck Session of Congress, 2021, and beyond. The latest state of play follows, which we will be updating with key developments over the coming days.

What do we Know Since the Polls Closed? 

Presidential Election

The next president of the United State is unknown. Of the races called thus far, President Donald J. Trump has 213 electoral votes to former Vice President Joe Biden’s 227, according to some projections. As of the time of this writing, the states that remain outstanding are: Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Georgia (16 electoral votes), Michigan (16 electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes), Arizona (11 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Nevada (6 electoral votes), and Alaska (3 electoral votes). 270 electoral votes are needed to win.  

Particularly when it comes to the presidential race, it is crucial to keep in mind that the rules for how and when votes are counted and certified are set under state law. The results that have been discussed thus far are just projections from news organizations based on available results from votes counted, surveys, exit polls, and voter registration data. The certification process will take place, depending on the state, between 10 November and 8 December. The Electoral College meets on 14 December to officially vote for the next president. Congress is scheduled to meet on 6 January 2021 to certify the results, though that date can potentially be changed. Inauguration Day is 20 January 2021. 

In the early hours of the morning on 4 November, President Trump spoke from the White House and declared victory in several states whose official results remain outstanding, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He indicated that the Trump campaign will move forward with legal challenges to ongoing vote tabulations. Former Vice President Biden also spoke, noting that he is on track to win the election and asked for patience while votes continue to be counted.  

Senate

It is unknown who will control the Senate. The current split is 47-47 with six races outstanding.  Democrats flipped two seats, while Republicans picked up one seat. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly beat incumbent Republican Martha McSally. In Colorado, Democratic former Governor John Hickenlooper defeated incumbent Republican Cory Gardner. In Alabama, Republican Tommy Tuberville unseated incumbent Doug Jones.

We know that at least one race, a special election in Georgia for the seat currently held by Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), will go to a runoff scheduled for 5 January 2021. If the tight margins hold in the chamber, control could remain unknown until after the runoff. Other races that remain tight and appear to be favoring Republican incumbents include Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and Sen. David Perdue in Georgia. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) appears to be having a strong showing against his challenger, Al Gross, an Independent. Democratic incumbent Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan appears to be trailing his Republican challenger with a significant number of mail-in ballots still outstanding. It is also an open possibility that the Senate could result in a 50-50 party split and whoever wins the White House will determine control of the Senate, as the vice president has the authority to cast tiebreaking votes.  

House

The Democrats are projected to maintain control of the House, though their margin appears to have narrowed. Current projections show Republicans gained six seats while Democrats gained only two. While Democrats projected confidence going into Election Day that they would expand upon their majority, four of the six seats Democrats lost are freshmen in districts that carried them to power in 2018. The two seats they picked up so far are both in newly redistricted North Carolina, where the new lines heavily favor Democrats. 64 races remain uncalled. 

What do we Know about Congressional and Committee Leadership Next Year?

Leadership

Party leadership in both chambers is expected to remain relatively stable. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) easily won reelection and is not currently facing any challenges to his leadership position. Other Republicans in Senate leadership that appeared vulnerable but easily won include Conference Vice Chairman Joni Ernst of Iowa and Counsel to the Majority Leader John Cornyn of Texas. Democrats had no major races against their party leaders, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is expected to remain as head of the caucus.  

On the House side, there are no major challenges to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), or Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) so far. There will be an open race for Assistant Speaker, as Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) was elected to the Senate. There is also an open race for Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, as Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts runs for Assistant Speaker. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), chair of the Democrats’ campaign arm, is in a tight race that remains uncalled. Leadership elections for Democrats will be held on 18-19 November.

There are no major challenges expected for Republican leadership in the House. Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to stay in his current role, as is Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). Leadership elections for the GOP will be held on 17 November.

Committees

A new Congress usually brings about changes to the top leadership slots of committees. The 117th Congress will be no different as a number of committee leaders in both the House and Senate are retiring or lost reelection. Republicans in both chambers also place term limits on how long a member may serve as both chairman and ranking member of a committee. Here is what we know so far regarding leadership changes at the committee level:

Known Senate Republican Leadership Changes

Senate Democratic Leadership Changes

House Democratic Leadership Changes

House Republican Leadership Changes

In the Senate, a number of additional committee leadership changes are expected on the Republican side, but will be determined by control of the chamber. Because of the conference’s rules, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is term limited and will have to step down as the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. However, in the case of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) will have to step aside if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, but could stay on as ranking member. The same holds for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) at the Rules and Administration Committee. There are two scenarios in which, if the Democrats are in control, members may assert their seniority to take the ranking member slots of certain committees. This applies to Sen. Murkowski at the Indian Affairs Committee and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) at the Judiciary Committee.

There remains an additional unknown with respect to the potential leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) stepped down from leading the Intelligence Committee as a result of an ongoing investigation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) received a waiver to lead both committees in the interim. We could see additional changes to the leadership of those committees or a restoration of Sen. Burr’s seat.  

What are the Implications for hte Lame Duck? 

There are several pending policy issues for consideration ahead of the adjournment of the 116th Congress, including ongoing debates regarding the possibility of a COVID-19 relief package and the continued funding of government. That said, protracted uncertainty on the election outcome will necessarily impact the bandwidth and appetite to address pending items during the Lame Duck.   

FY2021 Appropriations

One of the key issues that must be addressed during the Lame Duck is the continuation of government funding, which currently expires on 11 December 2020. In addition to the funding of government, flexibilities related to certain 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic measures, authorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and related programs, and several Medicare and Medicaid-related measures (known as health care extenders) expire on 11 December; several temporary tax policies, known as tax extenders, are also slated to expire on 31 December 2020.  

At this juncture, a range of approaches is possible given the uncertainty of the election outcome. An election outcome that is known in short order and closer to a steady state may create some impetus to address government funding and some of the other pending programs and policies slated for expiration. Other possible approaches may be a shorter-term continuing resolution extension into early 2021 and/or retroactively addressing policies such as tax and health care extenders. Although not likely, it is possible that protracted and contentious uncertainty could result in a government shutdown.

COVID-19 Relief

The outlook for a COVID-19 relief package following the election is unclear. There is a relatively short window for Congress to consider and pass a COVID-19 relief package before the end of the year. However, the need to address the continuation of government funding creates a complex dynamic. On the one hand, it decreases bandwidth for negotiations on COVID-19 relief; on the other hand, it could provide a must-pass vehicle for relief to ride on. Ahead of the election, Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were engaged in long-term negotiations and indicated some interest in attempting to pass a COVID-19 relief package before the end of the year. That would require Senate Republican support, which to date has been limited. If COVID-19 relief is not addressed by year-end, negotiations are likely to be renewed in early 2021, regardless of election outcome. The details will depend on the intersection of the ongoing health and economic impact of COVID-19 at that point in time – including the prospects for a vaccine – and the interplay between who is in the White House and the constitution of the Senate.

FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

Congress is currently on track to wrap up the annual defense reauthorization bill before the end of the year. House and Senate conferees have been working through their differences, and we anticipate the legislation could be finalized as soon as the end of November.  

Another area of focus in the Lame Duck will be on executive activity in case former Vice President Biden wins the presidential election. The Trump Administration will continue its focus on finalizing key rulemakings before Inauguration Day. There is likely to also be a focus on nominations and confirmations of judicial appointees under this scenario.

What Can We Expect in 2021?

Regardless of the outcome of the election, we anticipate a significant amount of legislative and regulatory activity, even if it does not advance to enactment, at the outset of 2021, creating risks and opportunities for a range of stakeholders.  

In many ways, the agenda is set. Not only will there be a strong focus on COVID-19 relief, oversight, and post-pandemic policy, activity is expected on a range of issues, including technology, transportation/infrastructure, labor/workforce, health care, tax, energy and the environment, sustainability, financial services, trade, international affairs, and social/racial injustice issues. The direction of policy, however, will be governed by the interplay between the White House and Congress.

Our previous alert, Trump v. Biden: What Might the Next Four Years Look Like?, provides an overview of the major priorities that the next administration may want to pursue. It will be critical for stakeholders to remain engaged as policies are shaped.

What Additional Dynamics Will Shape Policy?

There are several other political and procedural dynamics that will be critical in shaping the policy environment as we look ahead to 2021 and beyond, regardless of the outcome of the election.

Expedited Procedures for Consideration?

If Democrats gain at least 50 votes in the Senate and Vice President Biden wins the Presidency, it is possible that Democrats could use the budget reconciliation process to advance their agenda. This process requires only a majority vote in the Senate, which Democrats could have including the vote of a potential Vice President Kamala Harris. Congress is allowed three budget reconciliation bills per year, for revenue, spending, and the debt; these can be separate or combined. The Senate’s “Byrd Rules” impose restrictions limiting what can be included in a reconciliation bill, including that a measure must have more than an incidental budgetary impact and cannot add to the deficit outside the ten-year budget window. However, the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act were both passed using budget reconciliation, so it would be a powerful tool accessible to Democrats to enact their policy priorities. Notably, the narrower Democratic majority in the House could impact the viability of the budget reconciliation process. House Democrats would need to carefully thread the needle to develop a budget resolution that appeals to enough Democrats, including moderates and progressives, to make this a viable path forward. Setting aside the filibuster would be an alternative approach to the 51-vote threshold and would avoid the limitations of the Byrd Rule.  

The Power of the Executive

Recent administrations have continued to test the limits of presidential power. In this regard, the Trump Administration engaged heavily in foreign affairs priorities and aggressively used the powers of appointment, with a particular focus on judicial appointments given the Republican majority in the Senate. Both the Trump and Obama Administrations also focused heavily on policymaking through the rulemaking process, particularly when faced with mixed control of Congress. In a variety of areas, this resulted in significant uncertainty as different administrations dramatically shifted regulations under a broad-based statutory framework. We expect there to continue to be an aggressive push of executive power regardless of election outcome.

The Fight for the Future of the Party

Although the 2020 election is now behind them, both parties are at an inflection point with intra-party and inter-generational questions bubbling. On the Democratic side, the debate between the moderates and progressives will continue. One the one hand, there have been some losses among moderate House Democrats, which could have the effect of bringing the party to the middle; at the same time, there is an increased concentration among progressives. Additionally, the race for the next generation of leaders is starting in earnest. On the Republican side, President Trump has significantly shifted the intra-party dynamic, raising questions about the future positioning of the party, as well as who will ascend as leaders of the party.

At the Same Time, 2022 is Around the Corner

Although the election has just ended, the 2022 mid-term election is around the corner. In the Senate, there are a number of Republican seats in increasingly swing states that will be up, including several where members have already indicated they will be retiring. Depending on the party of the president, this could have significant implications in terms of the dynamics on dealmaking.

Patchwork of State and Local Policy

Progressive and conservative state and local jurisdictions are likely to continue to move forward with policymaking on a range of issues – from labor and workforce, to health, data privacy, and beyond – in light of the complexity of Congress attempting to move forward with preemptive federal laws. National and regional companies and organizations will likely have to continue navigating the patchwork of laws and regulations absent federal preemptive action.

International Uncertainty

The EU, or potentially individual EU nation-states, are expected to continue to advance policy priorities related to data, technology, taxation, and sustainability. Additionally, uncertainty around U.S.-China relations will continue to have broad economic ramifications – particularly on questions related to technology – and will likely reverberate around the globe. 

The Long Tail on the Pandemic

With nearly $3.5 trillion of COVID-19-related relief for businesses and families passed and more relief likely, there will be continued oversight and investigations over the deployment and recipients of the relief. Moreover, the pandemic has dramatically reshaped the way in which and where we work, live, and play, which may result in broad-based shifts in policy on issues such as transportation and infrastructure, workforce, technology and data, education, urban-rural policy, sustainability, health care, and social and racial injustice issues.

Media

The continued acceleration of the news cycle, particularly with the velocity of social media, and the amplification of such news by policymakers, will continue to create policy and oversight risks for companies and organizations. Proactive engagement strategies – even those that are targeted – can help to insulate such risk.

Strong Calls for Leadership

In recent years, as there has been White House and Congressional activity on a range of policies with broad stakeholder reactions, companies and organizations have increasingly found themselves being called to action to demonstrate leadership. Measured, proactive engagement may also mitigate possible risks, while creating positive opportunities for policy engagement.  

Copyright 2022 K & L GatesNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 309
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About this Author

Karishma Page, KL Gates Law Firm, Public Policy Attorney
Partner

Based in Washington, D.C., Karishma Shah Page is a member of K&L Gates’ Public Policy and Law Practice. Ms. Page concentrates her practice on federal legislative and regulatory policy, focusing on tax, financial services, retirement, health care, and employee benefits issues. Ms. Page has extensive experience working on a variety of tax legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, retirement legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and related rulemaking and regulatory activity.

Ms. Page develops and implements a...

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Amy Carnevale, KL Gates, government affairs advisor, healthcare policy lawyer
Government Affairs Advisor

Ms. Carnevale is a government affairs advisor in the firm’s Boston and Washington, D.C. offices. Her practice focuses on healthcare policy, labor and employment issues and economic development. Prior to joining the firm, Ms. Carnevale was chief of staff to a Northwest Member of Congress who served on the House Appropriations Committee. In this capacity, she managed all aspects of the office and was the Congressman’s top advisor for all political and policy matters. Prior to becoming chief of staff, Ms. Carnevale served as legislative director and legislative assistant....

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Tracy Lawless, Government Affairs Advisor, KL Gates Law Firm
Government Affairs Advisor

Tracy Lawless is a government affairs advisor in the firm’s Pittsburgh and Harrisburg offices, where she is a member of the Public Policy and Law practice group. She concentrates her activity in health care, as well as a diverse array of clients including manufacturing and transportation. She advises companies on strategic policy development, issue management, government solutions, and advocacy at the local, state, and federal levels.

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Kathleen L. Nicholas, Senior Government Affairs Specialist, energy, environment, agriculture, technology sector, law firm
Senior Government Affairs Specialist

Kathleen Nicholas is a senior government affairs specialist in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. She assists clients on policy issues related to the energy, environment, agriculture, and technology sectors. Ms. Nicholas also manages the D.C. office’s team of government affairs specialists and the Lloyd Meeds Fellowship Program.

202-778-9287
Mary Baker Burke, KL Gates Law Firm, Tax Attorney
Government Affairs Advisor

Mary Burke Baker is a government affairs advisor in the Washington, D.C. office. Mary focuses on federal tax matters affecting businesses—including domestic and multi-national corporations and all types of pass-through entities—and individuals. Her practice covers tax policy, tax reform, regulatory and other guidance, tax administration and technical tax issues, with particular emphasis on the OECD and the European Union, accounting methods, energy and medical device issues, and FBAR compliance matters for individuals.

Mary consults with and...

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