WASHINGTON D.C.— The Republican majority in the Senate narrowed to 51-49 on Wednesday as two new Democratic senators were sworn into office, complicating GOP efforts to advance the party's legislative agenda before the 2018 midterm elections.
Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office to Doug Jones from Alabama and Tina Smith from Minnesota.
Jones is the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter century. His victory over Republican Roy Moore shrinks the Republican majority, complicating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's efforts to move the GOP's agenda and President Donald Trump's nominees.
Smith, the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, was appointed to replace Al Franken following the Democrat's resignation over accusations of sexual misconduct. She becomes the 22nd woman currently serving in the Senate, a record.
Jones, 63, will represent one of the most conservative states in the nation and is stressing his desire to work with both parties. He will be under pressure to find some areas of agreement with Republicans and has cited the funding of infrastructure improvements as one possible avenue.
"I will be an independent voice and work to find common ground with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get Washington back on track and fight to make our country a better place for all," Jones said after defeating Republican Roy Moore in a special election rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore. Jones will take the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Before the Senate seat belonged to Sessions, it belonged to the man Jones considered his mentor, the late Sen. Howell Heflin. Jones worked for Heflin as a staffer after graduating from law school in 1979. Heflin was the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.
"I'm honored to be in this building, to be sitting at a desk that Senator Heflin once used, I'm wearing some of his cufflinks for the swearing-in today. I have these cufflinks that are Howell Heflin's cufflinks. They have his initials: H-T-H. I thought it was appropriate to wear those today, He is with me in spirit today for sure."
"To be able to have done the things I've done and end up back here is just a remarkable thing," Jones said. "I am looking forward to getting my feet wet and getting to know my colleagues and jumping into the action."
Jones said he is hopeful that he comes to the Senate with a "little bit of a voice" because of the attention on the Alabama race. "I hope I just simply bring an element of trying to talk to people. Work with people. I think that's the biggest thing I grew up with, and learned from my dad and others. If you want to get things done, you've got to work with people."
He told WHNT News 19 that a big part of his role will be listening and he plans to come back to Alabama to do just that.
"You know, the big goals I guess for me. I still really want to see the CHIP program, the child health insurance, funded. It's something I talked about on the campaign trail. It's something that, personally, I think is important to the state. It's important to kids around this country."
Jones says his main priority is to make sure he represents all people of Alabama. The junior senator is vowing to work to pass bipartisan legislation with his counterpart Senator Richard Shelby.
"I want to make sure I'm doing a job effectively. I think the job of U.S. Senator is not just here in Washington casting votes. I think it's back home listening as well. I'm going to try to get back there and try to learn in every area I can and talk to people and let them tell me what my priorities ought to be and just move on. We're going to hit the ground running."
We asked about his thoughts on defense funding, an all-important subject to north Alabama. "It's an important part of the Alabama economy. It's important for the country to maintain a strong defense. And so, we're going to get down into the details of that budget as soon as we possibly can."
He told us he plans to find a partner in someone close by. "Working with Senator Shelby, I think we can be a good team. To try to make sure that Alabama is well taken care of."
"There are a lot of people who didn't vote for me, and I hope they will keep an open mind because I am going to try to be the best senator I can for the state to try to move the state forward as a whole and not just one particular group or philosophy," he said.
Jones made it clear during the campaign that he was opposed to the GOP's efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. He said the efforts would drive up costs and lead to the closure of more rural health care facilities in the state. "That is a nonstarter," Jones said.