WASHINGTON – A new Congress convened at noon on Thursday, ushering in a record number of women and ethnically 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-gain of 40 seats during the midterm elections. That’s the biggest change since Democrats picked up 49 seats in the post-Watergate election of 1974.
The clerk announced the receipt of credentials of members, noting that a North Carolina Republican, Mark Harris, would not be seated amid allegations of election fraud.
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.”
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.
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.
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, David Jackson and Eliza Collins