Vice President Mike Pence swore in Doug Jones, Alabama’s first Democratic senator in more than two decades, after his win in last month’s special election to complete the term of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Former Minnesota Lieutenant Gov. Tina Smith brought the number of female senators to 22 when she took the seat of former Senator Al Franken, who resigned under pressure from fellow Democrats in December following allegations of sexual misconduct.
The number of Republican senators — now 51, down from 52 — gives Democrats added traction in a year when lawmakers will debate issues including infrastructure, immigration and government surveillance. Republicans will need support of at least nine Democrats to break filibusters — protracted debate used to delay or block legislation — and the GOP can only lose support from a single member in party-line votes on judicial and executive branch nominations.
Most immediately, leaders in both parties are battling over a plan for federal agency spending for the rest of this fiscal year, facing a Jan. 19 deadline to prevent a government shutdown. Democrats are seeking an equal boost in spending for non-defense and defense programs, as well as deportation protections for 800,000 young undocumented immigrants and provisions bolstering Obamacare. They have some support from moderate Republicans for some of their goals, escalating the risks for GOP leaders.
Republicans’ razor-thin majority already has challenged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, blocking his effort last year to pass a GOP-only repeal of Obamacare and forcing him to change Senate rules to confirm Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. Pence cast six tie-breaking votes last year, the most of any vice president since 1872.
The shift caused by the election of Jones also comes as Republican senators John McCain of Arizona, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Johnny Isakson of Georgia suffer health problems that have caused them to miss votes.
After Wednesday’s swearing in, Jones and Smith received hugs and handshakes from fellow Democrats, as well as moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who often works with Democrats on legislation.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor, narrowly beat Republican Roy Moore in last month’s special election after Moore faced allegations that he pursued teenage girls while he was in his 30s. Jones was elected to fill Sessions’s term, which expires in three years.
Jones made health care a central issue in his campaign. He said Obamacare needs improvement, but that replacing it is a “nonstarter.” His arrival likely dooms an effort by two Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana — to attempt another repeal of Obamacare in 2018.
Jones backs a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, and more spending on domestic programs like education and workforce development. He’s said he wants to work on a bipartisan infrastructure package that funds improvements for roads, bridges, schools and rural broadband. He’s been critical of the Trump administration for withdrawing from the Paris climate-change accord.
A lawyer and former aide to the last Alabama Democrat in the Senate, Howell Heflin, Jones served as a U.S. attorney from 1997 until 2001.
Smith’s Dec. 13 appointment to temporarily fill Franken’s seat gives her an advantage in a November special election to fill the seat for the remainder of Franken’s term, which expires in January 2021. Smith pledged when appointed by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton that she will be “a fierce advocate in the United States Senate for economic opportunity and fairness.”
Smith became lieutenant governor in 2015 and has focused on economic issues, including expanding rural broadband service and broadening access to early childhood education. Earlier, Smith served as Dayton’s chief of staff. In that role, she managed the daily operations of the state government and led an effort to streamline use of government documents and granting permits.
—With assistance from Greg Giroux.
—Read 5 Things Trump’s Health Secretary Pick Told Senators on ThinkAdvisor.