WASHINGTON – Democrat Doug Jones was sworn in Wednesday as Alabama’s newest U.S. senator, reducing the Republican majority to 51 seats and giving his party more room to impede President Trump’s 2018 legislative agenda.
Jones took his oath of office alongside former vice president Joe Biden, a longtime friend who had urged him to run last year. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., was also sworn in Wednesday to replace former senator Al Franken; she was joined by former vice president Walter Mondale.
A 63-year-old Democrat, Jones became the most junior member of the Senate, just behind Smith. It’s not yet clear which committees Jones will serve on; there is pressure to give a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was opened when Franken resigned, to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
But Jones is already playing an outsized role in Senate politics. His presence allows Democrats to block any Trump nominee, or any budget bill, by winning over just two Republicans. (If one Republican defects, Vice President Mike Pence can break a tie.)
Senator Republican aides privately conceded that Jones’s vote will make it nearly impossible to take another run at repealing the Affordable Care Act and may quiet talk of a major entitlement reform push this year.
“I think any good senator is a bipartisan, and that’s what I’m looking to do,” Jones said Wednesday, walking through the Capitol for his swearing-in.
Democrats, meanwhile, describe Jones’s win over former judge Roy Moore as a model for how they can take back at least one house of Congress in this year’s midterm elections. Republicans have described the Alabama race as a fluke, a race that tipped the wrong way after, as Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., put it, The Washington Post revealed that Moore “dated 14-year-old girls.”
Schumer’s party, however, has seen polling on the race that found it unusually tight even before Moore became buried by scandals. In 2016, Trump carried Alabama by 28 points; two years earlier, Democrats could not find a credible candidate to run for the seat then held by Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general.
Yet polling found Jones within single digits of Moore throughout the race. The Republican ran a sometimes lethargic campaign, holding just one campaign rally in the week before the vote and refusing to face Jones in a debate.
“If they continue to run the government for the benefit of the few, special, powerful, wealthy interests, there’ll be many more Alabamas in 2018,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said at a December news conference after Jones’s victory. “Many more.”
Jones, who is friendly with several of his new colleagues, said before and after the election that he would be an “independent” senator voting for whatever was good for his state. In an interviews with The Post last fall, Jones identified several senators who he said are models for the kind of consensus-driven governance he touted on the campaign trail: Patty Murray, D-Wash., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“I’m going to talk to people on both sides of the aisle, try to figure out what I think is in the best interests of my state and in the country,” Jones said last month in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Don’t expect me to vote solidly for Republicans or Democrats.”
On most of the issues facing the Senate this year, however, Jones has been critical of the Republican majority. He used his victory speech to call for CHIP, the health-care program for children, to be fully funded. He has argued that hundreds of thousands of Americans brought to America as children should be allowed to stay, but opposed the president’s demand that Congress fund a wall on the Mexican border as part of any fix.
“I don’t think that’s an expense taxpayers should have to incur,” Jones said last month.
In one interview with The Post, Jones also said that he wanted Congress to pass a new bill to “reinvigorate” the Voting Rights Act, that he would have cast a deciding vote to block Betsy DeVos from becoming Secretary of Education, and that he would oppose judicial nominees who came off as overly “political.”
Republicans have already warned that Jones, who next faces voters in 2020, will create trouble for himself if he sides too frequently with Democrats. In a statement after Jones’s win, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that Jones should “do the right thing and truly represent Alabama by choosing to vote with the Senate Republican Majority.”
Jones responded by saying he’d remain an independent voice.
“If we approach 2020 like we approached 2017, I’ll be fine,” Jones said at his post-election news conference. “I’m not going to change.”
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