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Trailblazers and absences define start of new Congress

Plenty of firsts, as well as some notable empty seats

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sworn in Thursday, surrounded by children in the rostrum of the House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sworn in Thursday, surrounded by children in the rostrum of the House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The first day of a new Congress is filled with ceremony and tradition, but there were a few things that set the start of the 116th Congress apart.

For the first time in history, a new congressional session began in the midst of a partial government shutdown. The swearing-in ceremonies and celebrations were clouded by the ongoing shutdown that’s now entered a second week. About a quarter of federal discretionary spending has run out, resulting in the shuttering of agencies and federal programs. But with the legislative branch already funded, there weren’t logistical problems on Capitol Hill that would devastate a high-profile day like the opening of a new Congress.

Another difference Thursday came when Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker — outgoing speaker Paul D. Ryan wasn’t there to pass her the gavel. Incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did the honor, representing chamber Republicans.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the outgoing speaker hasn’t handed over the gavel. Pelosi first received the gavel from Ohio’s John A. Boehner in 2007, when Boehner was going from majority leader to minority leader. That year, the previous speaker, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois did not seek a leadership role in the new Congress, opting for the back benches before resigning mid-term. 

Watch: Pelosi’s first responsibility as speaker? A marathon of 300 photo-ops

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Pelosi was sworn in by the dean the House, 85-year-old Alaska Republican Don Young. It was his first time with that responsibility. “Everybody be quiet,” he told the chamber, as children and grandchildren of members clamored to the rostrum to join Pelosi for her swearing in.

The new House is more diverse than ever before, with the first two Muslim women, the first two Native American women and a full roster of other “firsts.”

There was traditional garb on display rarely seen on the House floor. Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Deb Haaland of New Mexico all wore things that drew attention to their trailblazing. Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress (along with Omar), wore a traditional Palestinian dress called a thobe, that belonged to her mother. Many of her supporters took to social media to share photos of themselves wearing thobes, using the hashtag #TweetYourThobe.

Along with changing the demographics of Congress, Omar also had a hand in changing House rules. The former Somali refugee was the first person to wear a hijab, a Muslim religious head covering, on the floor of the House. She worked with Democratic leadership to change the 181-year-old ban on hats of any kind on the floor. The rules package adopted Thursday relaxed the prohibition to allow religious headwear, like a hijab or kippah.

Haaland, who along with Rep. Sharice Davids, is one of the first two Native American women to join the House, wore a traditional Pueblo dress. Her grandkids were also decked out in traditional wear. Haaland and Davids shared a long and tearful embrace after being sworn in.

Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is not new to the House; he was first elected in 2000. But he became another pioneer. The veteran and first quadriplegic elected to Congress was the first lawmaker to serve as speaker pro tempore in the new Congress. He presided over the opening debate on reopening the government.

“As Speaker, when America marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark, bipartisan Americans with Disabilities Act, it was my honor to implement changes to our institution to make it possible for our colleagues with disabilities to preside over the House,” Pelosi said in announcing her decision.

“How proud I am that we made a reasonable accommodation in the House of Representatives so that Mr. Langevin, as he properly should have the ability to do, preside over the House of Representatives,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said. “Congratulations, Mr. Langevin, for your courage and your leadership and your extraordinary example.”

The 116th Congress is also defined by an absence. A Shuster. With the exit of Pennsylvania’s Bill Shuster, who succeeded his father Bud Shuster in 2001, for the first time in 46 years, there isn’t a Shuster from south-central Pennsylvania in Congress.


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