Two new Democrats were sworn in as senators Wednesday, narrowing the GOP’s majority to 51-49 and creating more urgency for Republican leaders saying they want to reach for bipartisan accomplishments in the second year of the Trump administration.
Vice President Mike Pence delivered the oath of office to Tina Smith, who replaced Sen. Al Franken after his resignation amid mounting sexual misconduct claims, and to former prosecutor Doug Jones, who won a special election last month in Alabama.
Ms. Smith keeps a seat in Democrats’ hands, while Mr. Jones won a longtime GOP seat, cutting Republicans’ majority by one.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Mr. Jones’ ascension should usher in an era of bipartisanship, after the GOP majority capped the year with a tax overhaul along partisan lines, and GOP leaders agreed.
“The Senate will need to tackle a number of important issues this year. It is my sincere hope that we can do so in a renewed spirit of comity, collegiality, and bipartisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as he kicked off the second session of the 115th Congress. “I know that colleagues on both sides of the aisle share this hope. And it is urgent that we make it a reality.”
The Kentucky Republican had struggled at times to keep his narrow majority in line last year, even with a two-seat cushion, and it will only get harder now. Democrats said GOP hopes for a major rewrite of entitlement programs is done.
“The votes are just not there in such a closely divided Senate,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Democrats said Republicans have no choice but to work with their side, which means abandoning campaign promises such as a full repeal of President Obama’s 2010 health care law.
“Obamacare has survived this year. My guess is Republicans now understand it’s pretty difficult to repeal [it] when you don’t have a replacement,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat. “I think what they’re going to try and do is make some modifications, and they may have some help from Democrats. And it’ll be helpful to have somebody like Doug Jones, here, who can try to bring us all together on some policy that can stand the test of time.”
Mr. Jones says he is optimistic that both parties can solve the thorniest of issues, including health care and how to handle “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
“We’ll see. If you can find it a couple times, you can find it on others. You just got to thaw people out,” he said, as he whisked from one Capitol Hill meeting to another with his wife, Louise, by his side.
Mr. Jones asked former Vice President Joseph R. Biden to escort him to take the oath of office, rather than Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator and a Republican, according to local news reports. Mr. Shelby wasn’t even on the chamber floor for the swearing-in.
By contrast Ms. Smith was accompanied by both former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Minnesota native, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the state’s senior Democratic senator.
Ms. Smith rose through the ranks of Minnesota politics before Gov. Mark Dayton tapped her to replace Mr. Franken, increasing the number of women in the Senate to 22, a new record.
Some on the left thought Mr. Franken should have been able to stay during an ethics investigation. But a sizable number of his fellow Democrats told him to step aside, saying the party needed to claim the high ground in responding to reports of harassment on Capitol Hill and the “Me Too” movement that’s rooted out alleged harassers, gropers and abusers in media and entertainment.
Ms. Smith, 59, previously served as Mr. Dayton’s chief of staff before taking on her current role in 2015. She decided earlier this year that she would not run for the governorship after Mr. Dayton’s term ends in 2019.