In Depth

US election 2020: the US Senate and House of Representatives explained

Democrats hopes of winning the all-important upper house fade as Biden nears victory in battle for White House

US Democrats are facing mixed fortunes today, with Joe Biden extending his lead in the presidential race but hopes fading that his party can seize control of the Senate. 

The Democrats are projected to maintain control of the lower house, the House of Representatives, “but with some key losses” in Minnesota and Iowa, the BBC says.

The party also looks unlikely to win the Senate, despite polling before the election suggesting that they could flip the Republicans’ 53-47 majority.  

Winning the upper house would have given the Democrats the power required to push through Biden’s agenda, or stifle a second-term Donald Trump presidency.

What is the House of Representatives?

The House is the lower chamber of Congress and consists of 435 members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. House seats are divided among the states by population, according to a census taken every ten years, but every state must have at least one member.

The most populous state, California, has 53 representatives, while the seven least populous states - Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming - have only one each.

The party that gains overall control is in charge of which legislation comes to a vote, meaning they can stymie a president’s legislative agenda.

As election results continue to roll in, the Democrats look to have held their majority in the House of Representatives, but with a smaller majority after “they lost at least seven incumbents without ousting a single Republican lawmaker”, Associated Press reports.

Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy yesterday told reporters that the Democrats “were wrong” to think they would expand their control, adding: “The Republican coalition is bigger, more diverse and more energetic than ever before.”

The election has also brought a number of firsts, including the first black openly LGBTQ people ever elected to Congress and the first openly transgender state senator.

What is the US Senate?

The US Senate is the upper chamber of Congress. Originally intended as a regulatory group, the Senate has been the dominant chamber since the mid-19th century.

Unlike members of the House, senators represent the entire state. Each state gets two senators regardless of their size, with 100 senators in total. The Senate is presided over by the vice president of the US, who as “president of the Senate” is allowed to vote on legislation in the event of a tie. 

Polling prior to election day had given the Democrats hope of winning the four seats needed for the party to gain control of the Senate. But with votes still to be counted, those hopes are fading. 

So far, the Democrats have managed to win one additional seat, with John Hickenlooper claiming a key Colorado seat from the Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. But “buoyed by an unexpectedly strong performance by President Trump in key battlegrounds”, Republicans are confident that they have maintained their majority, The New York Times (NYT) says.

The Democrats’ best hope of winning control rests on Georgia, where at least one race will be decided in a January run-off - a second vote held if one candidate fails to surpass 50% of the vote - with a Democrat as front runner. 

“Votes in the state’s other contest [are] still being counted,” the NYT adds, but Democrats “were hopeful that [Republican] Senator David Perdue would have to contend with a run-off, as well”.

Senators can serve an unlimited number of rotating six-year terms and are elected by their constituents. The six-year terms are staggered, with about a third of the seats up for election every two years. 

The Senate “is commonly the more deliberative of the two chambers of Congress; theoretically, a debate on the floor may go on indefinitely, and some seem to”, says ThoughtCo.

While holding the same powers granted to the House of Representatives on legislation, the Senate also has a number of special powers including being the jury if the impeachment of a president goes to trial.

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