Democrats take control of the House as a new, diverse Congress convenes

WASHINGTON – A new U.S. Congress convened at noon on Thursday, ushering in a record number of women and racially diverse lawmakers and a new era of divided government with a Democratic-led House that promises greater oversight of the Trump administration.

Following eight years in the minority, Democrats are taking control of the House after winning a net 40 seats during the midterm elections. That’s the biggest Democratic gain since the post-Watergate election of 1974 when they picked up 49 seats..

The clerk announced the receipt of credentials of members, noting that a North Carolina Republican, Mark Harris, who faces allegations of election fraud, would not be seated.

Republicans kept control of the Senate after picking up two seats, expanding their narrow margin to 53 seats.

Nancy Pelosi, the only woman to have ever served as House speaker, is expected to be re-elected to the post in one of the first orders of business for the new Congress. She pledged, in prepared remarks, that this Congress “will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic caucus, gave a rousing speech to put Pelosi’s name in nomination to be Speaker. He began by citing a Psalm to describe Democrats’ return to control of the House. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Jeffries credited her with everything from rescuing the auto industry to saving Social Security. And, he said, “Nancy Pelosi is just getting started.”

“Let me be clear, House Democrats are down with N.D.P,” Jeffries said, referring to her full name Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi. The Democrats erupted in applause.

When Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., nominated GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy to be speaker, Republicans stood and cheered as she called for a wall to be built along the border with Mexico.

Democrats just stared.

The scene on the House floor had the look of an over-sized family reunion with people greeting each other with hugs and kisses. Many brought their children, including infants, on the floor with them. Boys in suit jackets and ties and girls in white tights and silver shoes wriggled into arm chairs far too big for them.

Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of the first Muslim women in Congress, greeted and hugged other members, milling about in a red and orange hijab. She is the first woman in Congress to wear the Muslim head covering. Democrats will vote on new rules, including clarifying that the prohibition on wearing hats in the House does not apply to religious headwear.

Pelosi, wearing a bright fuchsia dress, swept into the House with two young children in tow.

The list of her guests for today’s events included her five children and nine grandchildren, as well as singer Tony Bennett  and his wife, Susan Benedetto; Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead rock group and his wife, Caryl Hart; and television personality Tim Gunn.

Bennett sang to Pelosi on the eve of her expected election as speaker, at a dinner hosted by Italy’s ambassador to the United States.

Pelosi, 78, who served as House speaker from 2007 to 2011 and minority leader before and after that, is one of just a handful who have won multiple terms as speaker.

She is expected to take the gavel amid a budget and border-security battle with President Donald Trump that has shut down parts of the federal government for nearly two weeks. Trump wants more than $5 billion to construct a wall along the southern border.

Pelosi said the new Democratic House will approve its own plan to end the shutdown, though Trump has already rejected it. 

In his invocation to mark the beginning of the new Congress, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, pleaded with House members to “rise above political selfishness.”

“We need thee every hour. Oh Lord, how we need thee,” Cleaver said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., marked his return as Majority Leader by extolling the accomplishments of the previous session and questioning whether a divided Congress would be frozen in political gridlock.

“It’s a clear choice and will be clear to the American people watching all this at home,” McConnell said. “Good governance or political performance art? The public interest or political spite? Policymaking or presidential harassment?”

Pelosi faced opposition in her bid for speaker, but she stamped out a centrist rebellion by agreeing to limit her term to just four more years. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, considered challenging Pelosi for the top spot – until Pelosi announced that Fudge would chair a subcommittee focused on elections and voting issues, one of her signature issues.

Pelosi told USA TODAY, in an interview before the holidays, that priorities for this Congress will include reducing the cost of prescription drugs and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

Other early priorities will be passing legislation to expand background checks for gun sales, protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, ending discrimination in the workplace and protecting voting rights.

As part of the first day of business, Democrats will take up a package or rules changes. They range from those encouraging diversity to tougher ethics rules and tweaked legislative procedures that will make it easier to raise taxes.

Pelosi secured some votes to become speaker by agreeing to changes aimed at easing the passage of bills with broad bipartisan support. That provision even earned the package the support of one Republican, Rep. Tom Reed of New York, who said Wednesday he will take the rare step of crossing party lines to vote for it.

But the changes still face opposition from some liberal members who argue new budget rules will make it harder to expand social programs.

More women will serve this Congress than ever before, with 25 in the Senate and 102 in the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The House will also have the largest number of women of color ever with freshmen who have broken barriers in their states, plus the youngest woman ever elected to Congress – Democratic activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, who turned 29 in October.

Their historic involvement follows the massive Women’s March to resist Trump’s presidency and the #MeToo Movement’s protest against sexual misconduct in the workplace.

In another nod to diversity, Democrats chose Rep. Jim Langevin, the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, to preside over opening day. The speaker’s rostrum was reconfigured in 2010 with a series of lifts to make it wheelchair accessible.

The freshman class in the House brings a record level of educational attainment, but is also the least politically experienced cohort in modern history, according to the Brookings Institution.

Contributing: Bill Theobald, Deborah Barfield Berry, David Jackson and Eliza Collins

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