Democrats gain control of US Senate as new members take oath

Vice president Kamala Harris drew applause as she entered the chamber to deliver the oath of office to three new Democratic senators.

Vice president Kamala Harri
Vice president Kamala Harri

Three new senators have been sworn into office after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, securing the majority for Democrats in the Senate.

Vice president Kamala Harris drew applause as she entered the chamber to deliver the oath of office to the new Democratic senators – Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock and Alex Padilla – just hours after taking her own oath at the Capitol alongside Mr Biden.

The three Democrats join a Senate narrowly split 50-50 between the parties, but giving Democrats the majority with Ms Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Mr Ossoff told reporters at the Capitol: “Today, America is turning over a new leaf. We are turning the page on the last four years, we’re going to reunite the country, defeat Covid-19, rush economic relief to the people. That’s what they sent us here to do.”

Mr Ossoff, a former congressional aide and investigative journalist, and Mr Warnock, a pastor from the late Martin Luther King Jr’s church in Atlanta, won run-off elections in Georgia this month, defeating two Republicans. Mr Padilla was chosen by California’s governor to finish the remainder of Ms Harris’ term.

Taken together, their arrival gives Democrats for the first time in a decade control of the Senate, the House and the White House, as Mr Biden faces the unparalleled challenges of the Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout, and the nation’s painful political divisions from the deadly January 6 siege of the Capitol by a mob loyal to former president Donald Trump.

The pandemic has claimed 400,000 American lives, and Mr Biden is proposing a 1.9 trillion US dollars (£1.4 trillion) recovery package to distribute vaccines and shore up an economy struggling from the virus shutdowns.

At the same time, the Senate is about to launch an impeachment trial of Mr Trump, charged by the House of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol as rioters tried to interrupt the Electoral College tally and overturn Mr Biden’s election. The Senate will need to confirm Mr Biden’s cabinet nominees.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump’s impeachment trial will be heard in the Senate (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

To “restore the soul” of the country, Mr Biden said in his inaugural speech, requires “unity”.

Mr Biden said from the Capitol’s west front: “We can do great things, important things. We can make America once again a leading force of good in the world.”

Yet as Washington looks to turn the page from the Trump to the Biden administration, Republican leader Mitch McConnell is not relinquishing power without a fight.

Mr McConnell is refusing to enter a powersharing agreement with Senate Democrats unless they meet his demands, chiefly to preserve the Senate filibuster – the procedural tool often used by the minority party to block bills under rules that require 60 votes to advance legislation.

It is an arcane fight Mr McConnell has inserted into what has traditionally been a more routine organising resolution, but a power play by the outgoing Republican leader grabbing at tools that can be used to block Mr Biden’s agenda.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Progressive and liberal Democrats are eager to do away with the filibuster to more quickly advance Mr Biden’s priorities, but not all rank-and-file Senate Democrats are on board and new Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has not agreed to any changes.

Instead, Mr Schumer has proposed an organising resolution modelled after a 2001 agreement reached between the two leaders the last time the chamber was evenly divided. It allowed equal representation on committees, shared resources for offices and other needs and made no mention of filibuster changes at all.

Talks have hit a stalemate, leaving Senate action uncertain.

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