Feb 4, 2022 - Podcasts

The tenuous balance of power in the Senate

Democrats are down a crucial vote in the Senate after New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján suffered a stroke. While the 49-year old senator is expected to make a full recovery, his absence means a shift in the balance of power in the Senate. For now, Republicans have a 50-49 working majority until Luján's return in 4 to 6 weeks.

  • Plus, hundreds of thousands of U.S. bridges are in need of major repair.
  • And, how Americans really feel about the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Guests: Axios' Margaret Talev, Jennifer Kingson and David Nather.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Erica Pandey, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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ERICA PANDEY: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, February 4th. I’m Erica Pandey, filling in for Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what we’re watching today: Hundreds of thousands of U.S. bridges are in need of major repair. Plus, how Americans really feel about the 2022 Winter Olympics. But first, the tenuous balance of power in the Senate is today’s One Big Thing.

Democrats are down a crucial vote in the Senate. The balance of power in the Senate shifted after Senator Ben Ray Luján from New Mexico suffered a stroke on Tuesday. He's expected to make a full recovery, but his absence will shake things up in the 50-50 Senate until his return four to six weeks from now. Here to explain the stakes for President Biden's legislative agenda and Supreme Court nominee is Axios’ politics editor, Margaret Talev. Hi Margaret.

MARGARET TALEV: Hey Erica. Great to be with you.

ERICA: So Margaret, will Republicans control the Senate until Luján returns?

MARGARET: I mean, the truth is that nobody has been controlling the Senate and now even less will Democrats actually be in control of the Senate. And we've seen this before in recent American history, that when your party controls 50-50 and you need the Vice President to break the vote, you can lose no one. When you have a health emergency, you just don't know how long recovery is going to take in Senator Luján’s case. They have estimated four to six weeks, but think about the agenda in those four to six weeks. Of course, as we know, there's a Supreme Court nomination, we're hearing from democratic leadership this shouldn't impact that. Why not? Well, number one, it takes a while for the vetting and the hearing process to take place. Number two, in theory, in theory, it's possible there could be Republican votes for that nominee. But the reality is, if that's stretched longer and if Mitch McConnell saw an opportunity to take advantage of, you can imagine that he would. Beyond the Supreme Court nomination, there are scads of other nominations to regulatory positions, to diplomatic positions, that, uh, will be impossible for Democrats to move the ball on.

ERICA: I saw this stat in the Wall Street Journal that really nailed why this one person matters so much. And I quote, “Last year, all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats were needed for a total of 15 votes in which Vice President Kamila Harris was needed to break a tie.” So, you know, when you hear that, I mean, should the Democrats be scared right now?

MARGARET: They should be realistic about it, understanding what it means, for their pace and what it means for their already complicated process of getting anything over the finish line. We talk about these numbers, like 50-50, or those 15 votes, we’re talking about final votes in the Senate. But don't forget also there's a committee process and it's a consent process by committee. And so Luján has a membership on these committees: commerce, the budget or health and education, some specialty issues like Indian Affairs. This absolutely impacts the ability to move through the committee process before you were even getting to the question of a floor vote.

ERICA: So there is precedent for this kind of thing?

MARGARET: We've seen some examples in recent history. I mean, you remember back in 2006, Senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota had a terrible case of brain bleed that took him out for months. In 2012, Mark Kirk, a Senator from Illinois who was a Republican, he had a stroke and I think he was out for about a year. And look, so Senators are people too. We talk about the Senate battles in terms of numbers and votes, and who's going to do what, and we never bake in the human factor. We've been thinking about it in terms of COVID. Is someone going to get COVID and would it take them off of the field for a few days or a couple of weeks, but here we're talking about something much more serious. You're talking about a stroke and there are just many more questions about the path to recovery from something like that.

ERICA: Margaret Talev is the managing editor for politics at Axios. Thanks Margaret.

MARGARET: Thanks Erica.

ERICA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with Americans’ views on the Winter Games.


ERICA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Erica Pandey, in for Niala Boodhoo. Here's a stat that terrified me. More than one in three bridges in the United States are in need of major repairs or replacement. Axios’ Jennifer Kingston has been digging in on the numbers. Hey, Jennifer.

JENNIFER KINGSON: Hey, Erica. It's really scary out there. It's true. 36% of the nation's bridges are in serious need of replacement or repair. There have been band-aids applied to them over the years. The federal government through the infrastructure law is about to pony up a whole lot of money to repair them. But even under these circumstances, it's going to take 30 years or more, to get to them all and by then, things will continue to deteriorate. The bridges are in a sorry condition.

ERICA: So it is 2022 after all. Do we have any 2022 solutions for this problem?

JENNIFER: Some answers are bubbling up in Europe, but haven't quite hit the U.S. yet, it's possible to put sensors on bridges that will detect what's going on and send messages about it to predictive software programs so that we can tell just which bridges are about to have problems and advance. This isn't happening much yet. But, uh, in addition to physical inspections, it's something that could make a big difference going forward.

ERICA: Jennifer Kingston edits and co-writes the What's Next newsletter at Axios. Thanks, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thanks, Erica.

ERICA: The 2022 Winter Olympic Games have begun. And Axios and Momentive ran an exclusive poll to see how Americans may be feeling about this year's winter Olympics. Here's a spoiler: Seven out of 10 of the respondents said that China shouldn't be hosting the Games, but about half will still be tuning in. Axios’ managing editor for special projects David Nather is here. Hey, David.


ERICA: So why are Americans so down on China holding the games, what were the main reasons?

DAVID: They list a number of concerns. A lot of Americans are pretty concerned about the human rights record of the Chinese government. That was actually a top concern for Democrats as well as Republicans, really strong for both groups. After that, you started to see some disagreement on other priorities. Republicans were more worried about possible surveillance at the games, but, um, both parties are worried about it to some degree. Uh, Democrats are particularly worried about the possibility of another COVID outbreak at the Olympics. Republicans, meanwhile, are worried about China using the Games to boost their international prestige. So there's a number of concerns. The bottom line is that Americans are pretty down on the Olympics being hosted by China, but they're still going to watch.

ERICA: Right. I mean, half said that they would watch, so they're angry, but they're, they're kind of shrugging here. They're kind of saying, well, whatever.

DAVID: Yeah, this isn't actually that unusual. Americans have strongly held political views, but sometimes it's just not strong enough to change their behavior. And in the case of the Olympics, people still want to watch the Olympics.

ERICA: And even beyond the controversy around China, though, a lot of people aren't nearly as familiar with the Winter Games, as they are made with the Summer Games, right?

DAVID: So six out of 10 Americans in our polls said they couldn't name a single athlete who was competing. There are a few athletes who would get some mentions, like the snowboarder, Shaun White, people did mention him as somebody that they were looking forward to watching. But that was only about 6% of all the people who could name any athletes. And there was even a handful of people who said they were looking forward to watching Simone Biles. So they're going to be really disappointed when they turn on the TV, and she's not there at the Winter Olympics.

ERICA: That's crazy about Shaun White because this is his last Olympics, and he's been doing this for a while, and you'd expected there be to be even extra hype around it. So I'm surprised that only 6%, you know, could even name him. David Nather is Axios’ managing editor for special projects. Thanks, David.

DAVID: Thanks, Erica.

ERICA: If you're looking for a Winter Simone Biles, here are three Team USA athletes to root for: Figure skater Nathan Chen—aka the Quad King—has been virtually undefeated after placing 5th at the 2018 olympics in South Korea. You can watch the 22 year old compete in the men’s events starting tomorrow. Mikaela Shiffrin is expected to continue to dominate after recently winning her 47th ski slalom race at the World cup — making her the first skier to win that many races in a single discipline. She’ll compete in 5 events in Beijing starting with the women’s giant slalom on Sunday. And you won’t want to miss: Erin Jackson is the world’s top ranked female speed skater and recently became the first Black woman to win the speed skating World Cup. The Florida native compete a week from Sunday.

And that’s it for this week. Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura and Ben O’Brien. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. Special thanks to Axios co-founder Mike Allen. I’m Erica Pandey, and I’m signing off for now. Margaret Talev will be your host next week. - Thanks for listening - and have the best weekend.

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