Vice president Kamala Harris has sworn in newly elected US Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, as well as her replacement, Alex Padilla of California, affirming the slimmest possible Democratic majority in the Upper Chamber of Congress.
Hours after she was inaugurated alongside President Joe Biden, the vice president entered the Senate chamber to a round of applause on Wednesday afternoon. She swore into office the three senators in her first official act.
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, the vice president can deliver a critical tie-breaking vote, providing Democrats a crucial voice in the Democratically-controlled Congress, holding a slim majority to set legislative agendas.
Senator Chuck Schumer is now the chamber’s Majority Leader, replacing Republican Mitch McConnell. Senator Pat Leahy is the Senate’s president pro tempore, replacing Republican Chuck Grassley.
The brief ceremony in the Senate on Wednesday marked another series of historic firsts following the milestone of the vice president’s inauguration.
Senator Padilla is the first Latino senator to represent California. Senator Warnock is the first Black senator from Georgia and the first Black senator to represent a former Confederate state.
Senator Ossoff – Georgia’s first Jewish senator and the youngest member of the Senate – was sworn in on a book of Hebrew scripture once owned by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was a co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Senator Warnock has preached since 2005.
In his first remarks on the Senate floor as its majority leader, Senator Schumer called the role an “awesome responsibility – awesome, in the biblical sense.”
“Today I feel the full weight of that responsibility, a sense of reverence, of awe, in the trust placed in me,” he said.
Alluding to the deadlocked Senate under GOP control, he said the Senate won’t offer “timid solutions" but will act "with boldness and courage.”
“We have no choice but to try to work together to reward,” he asid.
Vice president Harris was seated at the dais that the so-called “Q Shaman” Jacob Chansley sought to claim during a deadly insurrection on 6 January.
"It takes more than a band of hooligans to bring our grand democracy down," Senator Schumer said.
In his first floor speech as minority leader, SenatorMcConnell said “madam vice president is now a part of our American lexicon."
Congressional Democrats have sought to quickly get to work passing the president’s agenda, including a nearly $2trn Covid-19 relief package, with an impeachment trial for former president Donald Trump looming in the Senate.
The proposal, on the heels of a protracted debate for a $900bn relief package after months of GOP roadblocks, is his administration’s pitch to begin repairing a scarred economy and provide immediate relief to millions of Americans, including direct payments to supplement the recently approved $600 cheques.
Members of Mr Biden’s cabinet also must be confirmed by the Senate – his nominees to lead the State Department as well as the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury are on hold until later this week or next week.
The two Senate leaders have not yet committed to a power-sharing agreement to determine the Upper Chamber’s operation in its first 50-50 split in 20 years. Senator McConnell has sought assurances from Democrats that they won’t eliminate the filibuster, while progressive Democrats have called to get rid of it to prevent GOP hurdles for critical legislation that’s essential to the Biden agenda.
But Senator McConnell said he does not believe Democrats have a mandate despite the congressional majority.
"Our country deserves both sides and both parties to find common ground for the common good where we can," he said.