Democrats sealed their control of Washington on Wednesday by swearing in three new senators to take the chamber’s majority hours after Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president.
The subdued Senate ceremony showcased the diversity that the Democratic Party promises to usher into the Capitol in the Biden era.
Upon taking his oath, Georgia’s Raphael Warnock became the 11th Black senator to serve in the office, the first from Georgia and the third serving currently. Jon Ossoff, also of Georgia, became the first senator born in the 1980s, the youngest since Biden began his first Senate term in 1973 and the Peach State’s first Jewish senator. And Alex Padilla became the first Latino senator from California.
Kamala Harris, who herself made history Wednesday as the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, administered the oath to the three senators. With party control now divided 50-50, she is likely to be called on frequently as Senate president to break ties.
Harris, a former senator whose seat Padilla took, laughed as she read a portion of the formal text that described the seat he would fill, which referred to herself in the third person.
“Yeah, that was pretty weird,” she said, before Padilla, Warnock and Ossoff approached the podium.
After taking the oath, the three new senators, all wearing dark-hued suits, exchanged elbow bumps with each other and Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had escorted Warnock and Ossoff. The small gestures punctuated the shifting of power in Washington.
The last time three senators were sworn in on the same day, besides the opening of a new Congress, was Nov. 8, 1954, after Nebraska Republicans Roman Hruska and Hazel Abel and New Hampshire Republican Norris Cotton won special elections to fill unexpired terms.
Ossoff, who unseated Republican David Perdue, took the oath holding a Hebrew Bible that belonged to Atlanta Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, a civil rights activist and close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The choice was a nod to the civil rights legacy that carried both Ossoff and Warnock to their wins in twin runoff elections on Jan. 5.
Warnock is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which had been King’s church. He plans to continue preaching while a senator. He has carried on King’s tradition of advocating social justice, and his sermons served as fodder for his Republican opponent, appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who attacked him as a dangerous radical during the runoff campaign.
Warnock, though, emphasized the sense of hopefulness in the teachings of the church and its leaders while talking frequently on the campaign trail about his youth in a Savannah housing project.
"It’s a new day, full of possibility. But we’ve got work to do together,” he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
Ossoff, the owner of a documentary film production company, got his start in politics as an intern for Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights contemporary of King’s, who died last year. Ossoff’s campaign credited Lewis as a mentor, saying he “instilled in Ossoff the conviction to fight for justice and human rights, as well as a deep commitment to the historic bond between Jewish people and the Black community.”
Padilla on Monday left his post as secretary of state of California, where he built a reputation as a leading Democrat with a perspective informed by his immigrant background.
His parents emigrated from Mexico and met in Los Angeles, where his father worked as a short-order cook and his mother cleaned houses. Padilla earned an engineering degree from MIT and later worked as an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who escorted him to the floor for his swearing-in, and to Tony Cárdenas, now a Southern California congressman.
The Senate terms of Padilla and Warnock, who is filling the seat Republican Johnny Isakson vacated in 2019 for health reasons, run only through 2023, so they would have to run again next year to remain in the Senate. Ossoff won a six-year term.