Political News

Two Democrats Sworn in to Senate, Cutting GOP Margin to One

Posted January 3, 2018 2:20 p.m. EST

**RETRANSMISSION OF XNYT34 SENT JAN. 3 2018 TO CORRECT DATE TO JAN. 3, 2018 ** Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) during his ceremonial swearing-in by Vice President Mike Pence, in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, Jan. 3, 2018. The arrival of Jones leaves Republicans with a one-seat majority in the Senate. With Jones are his sons Christopher, left, Carson, and his wife, Louise. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Two new senators — Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Tina Smith, D-Minn. — were sworn in Wednesday, in a history-laden ceremony attended by three current and former vice presidents.

“Very humbling for me to be a part of it,” Vice President Mike Pence said, after he presided over the swearing-in, in his role as president of the Senate.

Rare are the moments of bipartisan comity in the Senate, but Wednesday’s ceremony offered one, however fleeting. It was the senators’ first day back at work after their holiday break — a time of “fresh start and tender mercies,” as the Senate chaplain, Barry C. Black, said in his opening prayer at noon.

But in the swearing in of Smith and Jones, senators in both parties likely could see bright sides. For Republicans, Jones meant there would be no Sen. Roy Moore, an accused child molester whose election would have been hung around each of their necks. For Democrats, Smith’s ascent ended a painful period when a popular but tarnished colleague, Al Franken, was dogged by charges of sexual improprieties that blemished the Democrats’ efforts to capitalize on a tide of misconduct and harassment accusations.

Moments after the prayer and after the Pledge of Allegiance, the new senators readied themselves to walk down the center aisle of the grand chamber, where Pence sat high on the dais. Former Vice President Joe Biden escorted Jones while former Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., escorted Smith.

Both former vice presidents also served as senators. As they milled about after Pence administered the oath of office, the gregarious Biden greeted former colleagues with a hearty clap on the shoulder.

“He’s a good guy,” the former vice president told Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, referring to Jones.

In a sense, the #MeToo movement played a hand in the arrival of both Jones and Smith. Jones, 63, comes to Washington after a raucous special election in which his Republican opponent, Moore, was accused of assault and molestation of girls as young as 14.

Smith, 59, the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, was appointed by that state’s governor to fill the seat left vacant by the departure of Franken, who resigned amid allegations he had forcibly kissed one woman and groped several others.

She becomes the 22nd woman in a chamber that remains heavily lopsided in favor of men. Nonetheless, there are more women senators now — 17 Democrats and five Republicans — than at any time in U.S. history. Smith has already said she will run in a special election this November to claim the seat in her own right.

Jones replaces Sen. Luther Strange, a Republican who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when Sessions became President Donald Trump’s attorney general. His arrival in the Senate makes life more difficult for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who now must manage his sometimes fractious conference with a narrow 51-49 majority.

Jones made his name in Alabama as the lawyer who successfully prosecuted two of the Ku Klux Klansmen involved in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, nearly 40 years after the crime. He is the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years.

This is not his first encounter with the chamber; after he graduated from law school, he spent a year working for former Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala.

Black voters turned out in droves to support him, and he vowed in return to hire a diverse staff. He has already started to make good on that promise; on Tuesday, he named Dana Gresham, an African-American who previously served as an assistant secretary of transportation under former President Barack Obama, as his chief of staff.

Gresham is the only black Democratic chief of staff in the Senate, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization that tracks such appointments. Two Republican senators — Tim Scott of South Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas — have chiefs of staff who are African-American.

Among those attending the swearing-in was Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under Obama; he and Jones worked together in the Justice Department in the 1990s. He said he expected his old friend to be a ‘'principled moderate” and a “voice for justice and equality” on issues including criminal justice and voting rights. While Wednesday’s ceremony was a time to look forward, it was also a time to look back.

In the tradition of the Senate, where photographs are not allowed in the chamber, Wednesday’s swearing-in was followed by a re-enactment photo opportunity in the richly-decorated Old Senate Chamber, where lawmakers conducted their business from 1819 to 1859.

There, on Wednesday, Mondale, 89 and moving a tad slowly, chatted amiably with Pence, who extended an invitation to the entire Mondale family to visit the vice president’s residence. The Mondales became its first occupants in 1977, when Mondale served under President Jimmy Carter.