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Robert Gehrke: How an election in Georgia put Utah in a spot it hasn’t been in 100 years

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Lost in the turmoil of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was the pair of Democratic victories in Georgia with Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff flipping not just two seats, but control of the U.S. Senate.

It means that for at least the next two years, Democrats will be in charge of the House, Senate and the White House and leaving Utah, without a Democrat in its delegation, on the outside looking in to an extent we have not seen in more than 100 years.

The last time the state was this politically isolated was in the 63rd Congress, from 1913-15, when then — like now — Utah had an all-Republican delegation in a Congress controlled by Democrats and Woodrow Wilson was president.

Think about what this means.

Sen. Mike Lee’s efforts to rein in social media companies he thinks are too tough on conservatives is going nowhere, now that he will no longer chair a subcommittee or be in line to be chairman of a committee. The same goes for Rep. Chris Stewart, who can still talk about intelligence issues on Fox News, but won’t have much say in the House. And newcomers like Reps. Blake Moore and Burgess Owens will be the littlest fish in a big pond.

That analysis can oversimplify things, however, Jim Curry, a professor at the University of Utah told me.

Particularly in a Senate divided 50-50, where Republicans can use the filibuster to block big items, Democrats will need Republican support to get things done.

That’s where a small handful of senators in the middle could end up playing an oversized role in what bills make it to the president’s desk and which ones don’t — and that is where someone like Sen. Mitt Romney enters the mix.

As a junior senator, Romney wouldn’t have wielded much influence in a traditional sense. But as we saw last month, when Congress seemed hopelessly mired in partisan gridlock, we saw Romney and a bipartisan group of moderate senators — Democrats Joe Manchin, Mark Warner and Jeanne Shaheen and Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — hammer out a compromise package that wasn’t what everyone wanted, but was something that ended up passing.

“I think he’s already shown both sides he’s somebody you could legislate with,” Curry said, “so it’s hard to envision that his power will be that diminished, especially in a chamber that requires consensus.”

The Biden administration comes in with big ideas of what it wants to get done, an agenda that was made somewhat more realistic with the Georgia results. And he’s under pressure from the most liberal members of his party to be even more ambitious.

But the real policy, at the end of the day, is likely to be in the hands of this group of moderate senators who have tremendous leverage.

On Friday, we saw Manchin, for example, insist he would absolutely not go along with a new COVID-19 package that included $2,000 stimulus checks as Biden’s first act, likely delaying action on this idea. likely spelling doom for the effort.

And Murkowski, as an indicator of how forcefully one senator can use her leverage, said President Donald Trump should resign — “He has caused enough damage,” she said — and indicated she might leave the Republican Party if it becomes “the party of Trump.”

“If Romney is part of that group and this becomes contagious for these eight to 10 senators, then that puts him in a position where he can be effective, even if he is in the minority,” Curry explained.

Likewise, over in the House, Rep. John Curtis has an opportunity to at least have some say in one of the Biden administration’s top priorities — climate change legislation.

Curtis has, over the past few years, carved some space on the issue, pushing his own party to engage on climate policy and he could offer a bridge to bipartisan legislation.

“Too much of the [climate] debate is centered on the fringes,” Curtis said during his reelection. “Rarely do those in the middle put forth solutions.”

No, it won’t be the Green New Deal that some Democrats want, but without the numbers to pass it on a party-line vote, something will have to give.

Curry said that with few notable exceptions — like Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank banking reform, and the Trump tax package — big legislative accomplishments haven’t come through one-party support.

There is room for others in Utah’s delegation to take part as well, he said. Some of Stewart’s past priorities like suicide prevention and intelligence issues often cross party lines. Moore and Owens could get a seat, depending on if they’re focused on legislating or throwing partisan bombs.

And Lee has, on occasion, found common ground with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on things like criminal justice reform and avoiding foreign military intervention.

Make no mistake: Democrats gaining control of the Senate means Utah will have less influence on the structural power in Washington. But that doesn’t mean that some — particularly the likes of Romney — won’t have an opportunity to be influential, if they’re willing to compromise.

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