WASHINGTON — The Republican majority in the Senate narrowed to 51-49 on Wednesday as two new Democratic senators were sworn into office, complicating GOP efforts to advance the party's legislative agenda before the 2018 midterm elections.
The current vice president, Mike Pence, administered the oath of office to Doug Jones from Alabama and Tina Smith from Minnesota. Two former vice presidents were there to support the Senate's newest members.
Jones, the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter century, was escorted to the Senate chamber by former Vice President Joseph Biden, who had headlined Jones' campaign kickoff rally. Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special election rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore.
Smith, the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, was appointed to replace Al Franken following the Democrat's resignation over accusations of sexual misconduct. She becomes the 22nd woman currently serving in the Senate, a record.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., escorted Smith into the chamber, recalled that he "went through something like this in the good old days." In 1964, Mondale was appointed to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy created when Hubert Humphrey was elected vice president.
Jones, 63, will represent one of the most conservative states in the nation and is stressing his desire to work with both parties. He will be under pressure to find some areas of agreement with Republicans and has cited the funding of infrastructure improvements as one possible avenue.
Democrats voiced hopes that the narrowing of the GOP majority would lead to more bipartisanship in dealing with issues.
"We are moving closer and closer to parity, closer and closer to one another, and I hope closer and closer in solving problems," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "I think that was a message of the Alabama election, among other things. The American people want to see us work together."
Jones will take the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Before Sessions, the Senate seat belonged to the man Jones considered his mentor, the late Sen. Howell Heflin. Jones worked for Heflin as a staffer after graduating from law school in 1979. Heflin was the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.
During the swearing-in, Jones wore a pair of Heflin's cufflinks. Jones plans to place one of Heflin's cigar boxes in his office.
"To be able to have done the things I've done and end up back here is just a remarkable thing," Jones said in an interview before taking the oath of office. "I am looking forward to getting my feet wet and getting to know my colleagues and jumping into the action."
Jones said he is hopeful that he comes to the Senate with a "little bit of a voice" because of the attention on the Alabama race.
"There are a lot of people who didn't vote for me, and I hope they will keep an open mind because I am going to try to be the best senator I can for the state to try to move the state forward as a whole and not just one particular group or philosophy," he said.
Jones made it clear during the campaign that he was opposed to the GOP's efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. He said the efforts would drive up costs and lead to the closure of more rural health care facilities in the state. "That is a nonstarter," Jones said.
Smith, 59, served as chief of staff to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton before becoming his No. 2 when the previous lieutenant governor declined to seek a second term.
Smith is known largely as a liberal Democrat who has maintained connections to the state's large and politically powerful business community.
Once the senators took the oath of office, they repeated the event at a ceremony with family and friends in the Old Senate Chamber, once the home to the U.S. Senate and later to the U.S. Supreme Court from 1860 to 1935.