Senate convenes with pomp and circumstance, and no drama

History is made by three senior leaders

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., looks up in the Old Senate Chamber on Tuesday after reenacting his oath of office, which was administered by Vice President Kamala Harris.  (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., looks up in the Old Senate Chamber on Tuesday after reenacting his oath of office, which was administered by Vice President Kamala Harris. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted January 3, 2023 at 5:12pm

The history-making chaos in the House drew most of the attention Tuesday, but longtime senators were making history of their own.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was elected as the first woman to serve in the constitutional office of president pro tempore, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell eclipsed Montana Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield's record for length of service as a party floor leader.

The Senate broke out into applause after unanimous adoption of the resolution electing Murray to the role, and she was escorted to take the oath of office by her predecessor in both that role and the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, the newly retired Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.

“I hope that when young women now see me in this position, they see they can accomplish anything they set their mind to. I hope they see that they not only belong in Congress — but that their voices are needed here in Congress," Murray said in a video. “We need their perspectives and their insight — and we need a Congress that looks like America."

Vice President Kamala Harris administered the oath of office to Murray and the newly elected and reelected senators, later moving to the Old Senate Chamber for reenactments and photographs.

"There is no one I trust more to be third in the line of presidential succession than Sen. Murray. She's brilliant, pragmatic and someone who gets things done in the chamber," Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech.

Murray was the choice of the Democratic caucus after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the longest-serving member of the majority this Congress, made it known she was passing on being considered.

The election of Murray and adoption of several other resolutions and routine unanimous consent requests designed to help allow the Senate to function when lawmakers return for legislative business on Jan. 23 came without debate or difficulty, in a contrast to the inability of the House Republicans to coalesce around Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California for speaker, going to a second ballot for the first time in a century.

Under the Constitution, the House speaker becomes president if there's a vacancy in the offices of president and vice president. Murray would be next in line as president pro tem. The office is largely ceremonial but has responsibilities related to the operation of the Senate. 

Tuesday's events may make the case for the wisdom of the way the Senate has divided roles within the majority party, with a respected senior senator holding the constitutional role while each caucus chooses its own leadership with an internal majority.

Leahy, for his part, seemed to be relishing his final half-day as a senator. He presided over the brief, pro forma session that closed the door sine die on the 117th Congress at 11:30 a.m., and was seen touring the Senate wing of the Capitol with his wife, Marcelle. They visited numerous offices, including the daily press gallery and the radio-TV studio.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is fond of telling tales of past Senate leaders, focused most of his remarks on the leadership stylings of Mansfield, who was an often low-key but effective majority leader from 1961 through 1977. McConnell has been the Republican leader since 2007.

"Instead of surprise, late night sessions and unpredictable recesses, senators got a set schedule. Instead of micromanaging, the majority leader was actually laissez faire," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor, noting the contrast in style from Mansfield's predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

And not to be outdone, Schumer made some history of his own, becoming the longest-serving senator from the state of New York.

"My mentor and former colleague, Pat Moynihan, taught me you have to dream big to properly serve the people of New York," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "I try to do that every day, visiting the 62 counties, and listening to as many New Yorkers as I can."