Senate races lean Republican, with bills on abortion and religious freedom on the horizon

shutterstock 180961301 Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. | Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

Republicans looked on track Wednesday morning to keep control of the Senate, offsetting a loss in Colorado with a gain in Alabama. The upper chamber is set to consider several key bills on abortion funding and religious freedom in the coming session.

Republican incumbents held on to their seats in closely-watched races in Montana, Iowa, and South Carolina. With control of 47 seats, and votes still coming in other races, Republicans are ahead in Alaska, Maine, and Georgia races, with narrower leads in North Carolina and Michigan. 

The first chair of the new Senate Pro-Life Caucus, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), won his first race for re-election with a nine-point lead and 92% of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning.

The top two candidates in the Georgia special election, Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock, will face off in another special election in January as neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote.

GOP incumbent Sen. David Perdue has slightly more than 50% of the vote in the other Georgia race, but ballots being counted on Wednesday morning could drive his vote share down and force a second runoff election.

If Perdue and Sen. Susan Collins (ME) hold their seats, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) maintains his two-point lead as ballots are still counted in North Carolina, Republicans could hold a narrow 51-seat majority. As of Wednesday morning, Republican challenger John James clung to a 24,000-vote lead in Michigan with 93% of the vote in. 

With Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pulling ahead in key swing states on Wednesday morning, Democrats could end up with control of both the White House and the House of Representatives, but Republicans could hold the Senate by the thinnest of margins.

In that scenario, a President Biden would need the approval of the Republican-led Senate to appoint cabinet members and federal judges.

While Republican leaders might defer to the president on cabinet members, they could choose to fight hard against judicial nominations to preserve President Trump's deep impact on the federal courts, with more than 200 appointments during his four-year term, including three nominations to the Supreme Court.

Any fight over judicial nominees would likely grow more intense if a further Supreme Court seat should fall vacant. 

With a Republican Senate and a Democratic House and White House, divided government would continue to be the norm in Washington, D.C, and set up possible legislative gridlock on a range of measures, including further aid and stimulus packages to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

House Speaker Nacy Pelosi has already signaled she would seek to repeal the Hyde Amendment, the policy that bars funding of abortions in health spending bills. Joe Biden, if elected president, has also said that he would repeal Hyde.

With a smaller Democratic majority than hoped for in the House, however, it remains to be seen if Pelosi could make good on her promise to force through repeal of the policy.

Hyde has been enacted annually for decades as an attachment to appropriations bills, and if Republicans hold control of the Senate, abortion funding could prove a key battleground for the new Congress.

Biden, together with Democrats in the House and Senate, has also championed the Equality Act, which makes sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes in law. Opponents of the bill - including the U.S. bishops - have warned the law would roll back key religious freedom protections and could be used to force doctors to perform some abortions. Already passed once by the House, it was blocked by the Senate last year and could again stall if Republicans hold the chamber. 

Other pro-life legislation-such as a 20-week abortion ban and a bill offering protection for babies surviving abortions-is expected to go nowhere in the Democrat-led House. In the Senate, pro-life members do not hold the necessary 60-seat majority for legislation to survive a filibuster.

During this Congress, Pro-life House members tried to force a vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a bill that established criminal penalties for doctors or health care professionals who failed to give necessary health care to infant survivors of abortion.

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The "discharge petition" to force consideration of the bill by the entire chamber, however, received 205 signatures-13 less than the 218 needed. Three Democrats joined Republicans in signing the petition, but two of them have now lost either their primary or general election.

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