On Thursday, January 3rd, the newest United States Senators were sworn in and began their new terms in Congress. There are a collection of Congressional Fellows who have embraced experiencing our fellowship years to their fullest, so it was not surprising that half an hour before the swearing in ceremony, I found myself with three other Fellows who also wanted to try to leverage our staff badges to view this historic event.
Alas, when we arrived at the gallery level of the Senate, we learned that it was a ticketed-only event, but we were still glad that we had made the attempt. As we made our way back through the Capitol, it was very exciting to spot the newly elected Senators and their entourages of family and friends. Recently re-elected Senator Maria Cantwell, a veteran of several terms, appeared just as excited as Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren.
As a side note, my quest to be able to identify all of the Senators by face is certainly improving my people-watching abilities!
My fellow Fellows and I rapidly came up with a Plan B for experiencing the swearing-in ceremony, which involved grabbing lunch and taking it back to the conference room outside my office where I could set up the TV and we could watch the event on C-Span. It was not quite as magical as being present physically, but we were certainly able to make many more comments!
The first detail that struck me was that Vice President, Joe Biden, was presiding over the chamber. I have not seen that in the several months that I have been here, but his presence was obviously required to administer the oath of office to the new class of Senators, and to begin the first session of the Senate in 113th Congress.
Vice President Biden went through the list of Senators to be sworn in in alphabetical order, calling four Senators in each group. At that point, after a certain amount of internal stage-managing to get people in the correct order, eight people proceeded to walk from the back of the chamber. Eight people? But there were only four names called? You may recall that the Fellows are all scientists, so we all immediately started to develop and test hypotheses of who the additional people were.
Spouses? No, we recognized several other Senators in the back row of the group of eight. Wait! That’s Senator Mikulski from Maryland standing behind newly re-elected Senator Cardin from Maryland! Our hypothesis that the supporter was the other Senator from the state was reasonably accurate. I learned from NPR the next day that the supporter is most often another person from the Senator’s state, as long as the two Senators have a reasonably good relationship. There were two exceptions that I identified, and I was pleased to understand the stories behind those substitutions. The supporter for Senator-elect Maisie Hirono from Hawaii was Senator Patty Murray, who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the last cycle, and who was substituting for Senator Inouye who passed away just before Christmas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likewise supported Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey since Senator Frank Lautenberg of that state has been ill with the flu.
After administering the oaths of office, Vice President Biden departed and was replaced by the new President Pro Tempore, Senator Leahy from Vermont. Senator Leahy, who with the passing of Senator Inouye became the longest serving member of the Senate (and thus made him President Pro Tempore) now follows the Vice President in the Presidential succession. Senator Leahy presided over the first Senate quorum call of the 113th Congress, and because it was specified to be a live quorum call, all of the Senators were required to be present. The roll was read, and each Senator had to respond to his or her name. In my brief experience, it has been extremely rare to see all of the Senators in the chamber, so there was a sense that the full power and weight of the Senate had been assembled.
After the quorum call came the next substitute in the sequence of presiders. You may recall that since both the Vice President and the President Pro Tempore generally prefer not to be tied to the responsibility of presiding over the chamber all day, the daily job of presiding over the Senate customarily falls to the newest Senators of the party in the majority. Due to my diligent face-recognition homework, I was able to recognize Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina. She faced the significant challenge of trying to get her more senior colleagues to be quiet enough for the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make some remarks. The Senators rarely actually sit down at their desks unless they are preparing to speak; instead they like to gather in clumps around the edges of the room and chat with their colleagues, who they often only see during votes on the Senate floor. Trying to bring order to the exuberant and celebrating Senators was a substantial challenge. At one point, Senator Reid commented, “I don’t want to make a point of this, but most of the noise seems to be coming from the Democratic side.” The Presiding officer, Senator Hagan agreed, announcing, “The Democratic side will be in order!” As a side note, I’m still considering whether I can use, “The Senate will come to order!” as a means of starting classes next year.
Having watched the elections so closely and observed the passion with which so many people campaigned, the swearing-in ceremony felt like the real ending of the election at the same time that it was the beginning of new work to be done. I understand that it is typical to begin any new adventure with a considerable amount of optimism, but I do find myself hoping that these high spirits and good intentions will endure.