The US Congress convened on Sunday for the start of a new session, swearing in legislators during a tumultuous period as a growing number of Republicans work to overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump and the coronavirus surges.
Democrat Nancy Pelosi was re-elected House speaker by her party, which retains the majority in the House but with the slimmest margin in 20 years after a surprisingly strong GOP performance in November’s election.
Opening the Senate could be among Mitch McConnell’s final acts as majority leader. Republican control is in question until Tuesday’s run-off elections for two Senate seats in Georgia. The outcome will determine which party holds the chamber.
The House and Senate were required to convene on Sunday, by law, and imposed strict Covid-19 protocols.
Elbow bumps replaced handshakes as senators took the oath of office. Fewer family members than usual joined politicians at the Capitol. A special enclosed seating section was designed for legislators who are in Covid-19 quarantine but tested negative for the virus.
But by day’s end, House members were hugging and congratulating one another after taking oath in the crowded chamber, an alarming scene during the pandemic.
“To say the new Congress convenes at a challenging time would be an understatement,” Mr McConnell said as the chamber opened.
Still, Mr McConnell said with the start of a new year there were reasons for optimism, adding “Let’s make the American people proud”.
Ms Pelosi said the top priority was defeating the coronavirus. And “defeat it we will”, she said to applause.
It is often said that divided government can be a time for legislative compromises, but politicians are charging into the 117th Congress with the nation more torn than ever, disputing even basic facts including that Mr Biden won the presidential election.
Fraud did not spoil the 2020 presidential election, a fact confirmed by election officials across the country.
Before stepping down last month, attorney general William Barr, a Republican appointed by Mr Trump, said there was no evidence of fraud that affected the election’s outcome.
Arizona’s and Georgia’s Republican governors, whose states were crucial to Mr Biden’s victory, have also stated that their election results were accurate.
But Mr Trump has enlisted support from a dozen Republican senators and up to 100 House Republicans to challenge the Electoral College vote when Congress meets in a joint session on Wednesday to confirm Mr Biden’s 306-232 win.
Vice President Mike Pence, who as president of the Senate, presides over the session and declares the winner, is facing growing pressure from Mr Trump’s allies over that ceremonial role.
Mr Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement on Saturday that Mr Pence “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections”.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead, eager to partner with Mr Biden on shared priorities, starting with efforts to stem the pandemic and economic crisis. They plan to revisit the failed effort to boost pandemic aid to 2,000 (£1,461) for most Americans.
The extraordinary Republican effort to overturn the presidential election was condemned on Sunday by an outpouring of current and former GOP officials warning the effort was undermining Americans’ faith in democracy.
“The scheme by members of Congress to reject the certification of the presidential election makes a mockery of our system and who we are as Americans,” said of Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan.
Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a memo to colleagues that objections to the Electoral College results “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent”.