Biden, Congress and Canada

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What the Democrats’ crucial Senate-runoff victories mean for Canada

When U.S. president-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, he will work with fellow Democrats who control both chambers of Congress, following the election of two Democratic senators in Georgia’s runoffs held earlier this week. The Democratic-run executive branch, House of Representatives, and Senate will make it easier for the new Biden administration to proceed with an agenda that, compared to President Donald Trump’s, more closely aligns with the political goals of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

By sweeping Georgia’s runoffs — in which Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock were elected following a do-over necessitated by the November election in which no top-finisher in the state won 50 per cent of the vote — the Democratic Senate caucus of 50 matches the Republicans’, but wins the tie-breaker because of the vote given to vice-president-elect Kamala Harris.

Experts on U.S.-Canada politics say one way the Democrats’ control of the Senate will influence the early days of the Biden presidency is by expanding his options when it comes time for him to nominate his ambassador to Canada.

Ambassadors need just 51 Senate votes to be confirmed, meaning Biden’s appointee won’t need a single Republican vote.

“Traditionally, (the ambassador to Canada) tends to be someone who was a political nominee, who has close relations with the president and the secretary of state,” John Faso, a former Republican representative for New York, told iPolitics in a phone call on Wednesday. “I would anticipate something like that in the future under the Biden administration.”

Biden’s administration will also have a view of the environment that’s a sharp 180-degree turn from Trump’s and that’s closer to Trudeau’s.

Indeed, Canada and the U.S. will collaborate more on climate policy, say both Faso and Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and current vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“On environmental issues, generally, I think we’re going to be very much in tandem with them,” Robertson said.

But Biden’s environmental agenda is also expected to meet resistance in the marginally controlled Senate.

“People would say, ‘Well, this means that Biden can get his ambitious climate agenda through,’ ” said Scotty Greenwood, Crestview Strategy’s partner and managing director in the U.S. “The truth is, you still have to get the handful of votes from the other side.”

Biden may be able to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, and reverse Trump’s loosening of pro-fossil fuel executive orders, but some of his most significant climate promises — such as banning new oil and gas permits on public lands and creating new regulations to curb emissions — will likely be held up in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation.

“I think some of the more dramatic — or radical, depending on your point of view — energy proposals are going to be hard,” Faso said. “I don’t see those passing the Senate in that context.”

Nor can all Democratic members of Congress be relied on to vote for sweeping changes to environmental laws. Several Democratic senators and representatives in the House, which the Democrats also hold by a slim margin, hail from states that depend heavily on revenue from the fossil fuels they produce.

One climate-related matter that Biden and Trudeau don’t agree on is the Keystone XL project. The oil pipeline would allow hundreds of thousands more barrels per day of Alberta crude to be transported to refining hubs and markets in the American Midwest and on the Gulf Coast.

A Republican bill that authorized Keystone XL cleared Congress in 2015, but it was vetoed by then-president Barack Obama. Trump revived the project, which has now been partially built, but Biden has promised to kill it. Trudeau says he’ll continue pushing the incoming president not to revoke the pipeline’s approval, but Robertson doesn’t believe that will work, due to the pipeline’s “symbolic importance” to climate activists who helped Biden win the presidency.

An executive order signed by Trump affirmed the president’s authority over cross-border projects like Keystone XL, almost certainly keeping any responsibility for it outside of the new Senate.

“I think it (will) be very hard for (Canada) to turn this around,” Robertson said, “so I wouldn’t lead with my chin on this one. Leave it to the industry, leave it to (pipeline) supporters in the United States, (and) leave it to Alberta.”

Another bilateral issue to which Biden is expected to bring change is trade. While Trump and Trudeau agreed to a new North American trade pact, Trump’s term was also mired in fights over softwood lumber, steel, and aluminum, and tit-for-tat tariffs that were sometimes paired with personal insults.

“While the tone is going to be very different between Biden and Trudeau, … I’m not sure the substance, at the end of the day, is going to be much different,” Faso said.

Members of the Canadian and American governments, including U.S. senators, will have to strengthen their trading relationship, he added.

“People on both sides, who want (us to) have a much more productive and integrated trade relationship, have to work hard to bring that about, because a lot of Americans — and frankly, unfortunately, many members of Congress — don’t fully appreciate how significant a trading partner Canada is with the United States,” Faso said.

When asked about the Senate runoff elections on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he followed them closely.

“We look forward to working with the new Biden administration to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, including urgent action on climate change, the strengthening of global multilateralism, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Syrine Khoury, Champagne’s press secretary, wrote in an email.

“Canada looks forward to forging strong working relationships with members of the new Biden-Harris administration.”