Congress opens with pomp and a looming shutdown fight

A bitter shutdown fight couldn’t completely overshadow the pomp and surprises of the opening day of the 116th Congress on Thursday as Georgia gained a fifth Democratic lawmaker and two of the state’s prominent Democrats received unexpected votes for House speaker.

The fight over border funding, however, was never far from the forefront as the two parties continued to trade blame for the ongoing government shutdown and House Democrats began advancing a spending bill free of wall funding.

Marietta Democrat Lucy McBath kicked off her whirlwind first day as a member of Congress at a Catholic church a stone's throw from her new Capitol Hill office. The gun control advocate and former flight attendant read a poem from the 19th century abolitionist and writer Ednah Dow Cheney at a bipartisan prayer service and held back tears as she discussed her late son Jordan, who inspired her political activism and eventual run for Congress.

“I’m so proud, grateful and anxious to get to work,” said McBath as she rushed from a reception with family and supporters to the House floor. “I intend to make sure that I’m honoring … the people that believe in me and my ability to really represent them here in Washington.”

McBath edged out incumbent Republican Karen Handel last year in a suburban Atlanta district that was home to the country's most expensive congressional race in 2017. Her votes in Congress will be closely watched by GOP groups seeking revenge in 2020.

The fights to come were less evident on Thursday, as a beaming McBath, donning a “Madame Speaker” button, cast a vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker in Jordan’s name. Her four Democratic colleagues from Georgia followed suit, also voting for Pelosi.

A big surprise came roughly halfway into the more than hour-long floor vote, when Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind endorsed Atlanta Democrat John Lewis for speaker over Pelosi. Shortly thereafter, Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat who had led a group of Democrats trying to oust Pelosi, voted for former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“You want to talk about really trying to make Congress work, how great would it be to bring someone in who knows how to legislate, which (Abrams) does; would be a history-making speaker, which she would be; who’s beholden to no special interest whatsoever, which she’s not,” said Rice, who has never met Abrams. (House rules allow for non-members to be elected speaker.)

Abrams later thanked Rice on Twitter and quipped that her grandmother would be “amazed” she received a vote for speaker.

Lewis, a vocal Pelosi ally, had previously urged his colleagues not to vote for him for speaker, saying that it would be the equivalent of voting “ for the Republican nominee.” But he later shrugged off Kind’s vote.

“Sometimes, people don’t listen to you,” he said. “Sometimes, they go with their own mind, their own conscience. Can’t win ‘em all.”

‘Political stunt’

Meanwhile, all but one of the state’s nine GOP congressman backed Kevin McCarthy for speaker. The exception was Monroe Republican Jody Hice, who instead backed his Freedom Caucus colleague Jim Jordan.

Nearly all of the state's Republicans were preparing to endure life in the minority party for the first time since arriving in Washington. Many groused about the spending plan being advanced by Democrats on Thursday that omitted money for President Donald Trump's border wall and emergency funding for cleanup from recent natural disasters.

“This piece of legislation that they have is a political stunt,” said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, whose agriculture-heavy south Georgia district was hammered by Hurricane Michael in October.

GOP leaders have already indicated the plan is dead on arrival in the Senate. Congressional leaders were expected to resume negotiations at the White House on Friday.

Congressman Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, blamed Democrats for the shutdown showdown as it entered its 13th day.

“The Democrats have to be able to be willing to fund barriers on the border,” the third-term lawmaker said. “Even though they voted for them in the past … they’ve boxed themselves into a corner now, and they’ve got to figure out how to get out.”

McBath saw things differently. The newly minted lawmaker said Democrats were advancing a spending plan not dissimilar from the legislation initially endorsed unanimously by the U.S. Senate before the holidays.

“There are a lot of government services that need to begin again and also all the government workers that are now not working,” she said. “We want to restore their wages, to get them back so work. So that’s our goal.”