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3 Jan, 2017 22:44

New faces, old quarrels: A look at the 115th US Congress

New faces, old quarrels: A look at the 115th US Congress

There are 59 new faces on Capitol Hill, as members of the 115th US Congress were sworn in. Two were political heirs, while some others checked off ‘historic first’ boxes. Over the next two years, the lawmakers will back or block President Donald Trump.

Republicans will have the majority in both chambers, with 52 seats in the Senate and 241 in the House. Though the Democrats picked up two Senate and seven House seats in the November election, they remain a minority, but potentially have enough clout to block proposals by the president-elect.

House: The scion also rises

Among the 52 new faces in the House of Representatives were a son and a daughter of former lawmakers, who watched from the gallery.

Dick Cheney once represented Wyoming in the House, before becoming defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush and vice-president under his son George W. Bush. Cheney’s daughter Liz was sworn in on Tuesday to her father’s old seat in the House, the only one allocated to the northwestern state.

Jimmy Panetta was sworn in as representative of California’s 20th district – the same seat once held by his father Leon, who went on to become White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton and served President Barack Obama as CIA director and secretary of defense.

Senate: Historic firsts

Seven new members joined the Senate, two Republicans and five Democrats.

Conspicuously absent were former minority leader Harry Reid, California’s Barbara Boxer and Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, all Democrats who have retired after lengthy terms in the Senate. Democrats held onto the seats, with Chris Van Hollen replacing Mikulski, while Reid and Boxer were succeeded by two historic firsts.

Former California attorney general Kamala Harris is the first Indian-American woman ever to serve in the Senate, and the first black woman to represent California in the upper chamber. Harris will “continue the tradition of having a strong, progressive woman in this seat,” according to Boxer.

Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), who was elected to Reid’s old seat, is the first Latina and the first Mexican-American woman in the Senate. The 115th Congress has a total of 38 Hispanic members.

Two of the senators had previously served in the House: Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) and Todd Young (R-Indiana). Only one of the seats had changed hands in the November election, with New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan narrowly defeating the incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte.

A very heavy agenda

One of the changes to the House rules proposed by the Republican majority involved neutering the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), set up by the Democrats in 2008. As Democrats mobilized constituents to protest the proposal, the president-elect voiced his disapproval of the changes on Twitter. Shortly thereafter the GOP abruptly and unanimously decided to drop the proposed changes.

Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have joined Democrats in calling for an aggressive probe of allegations that Russia “hacked” the election. Trump has dismissed the furor, saying the country ought to “move on to bigger and better things.”

On other issues, however, the president-elect and the Republican majority seem to be in agreement. Trump has pledged to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – the signature program of the outgoing administration. Republicans in Congress have already put forth a measure that would ensure the repeal without fear of a Democratic filibuster.

Repealing many of the Obama administration’s laws will also be on the agenda, with Congressman Doug Collins (R-Georgia) reintroducing the REINS Act, giving Congress oversight over major executive actions. Trump can also reverse hundreds of regulations that fall under executive privilege, from environmental rules to school lunch standards championed by the outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama.

Confirmation hearings for some of Trump’s cabinet picks are expected as early as next week, though Democrats have pledged to “vehemently resist” rushed appointments, according to the new Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York).

Democrats say they will focus their opposition on Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO tapped to take over the State Department; Georgia Congressman Tom Price, nominated to head Health and Human Services; and Steve Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs banker who has been offered the post of Treasury secretary.