‘A new era’: Ossoff, Warnock sworn into office, giving Democrats control of U.S. Senate

‘A watershed moment in our state’s history,’ Ossoff says
Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, are sworn into the Senate along with Alex Padilla of California on Wednesday. (Video image from C-SPAN)

Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, are sworn into the Senate along with Alex Padilla of California on Wednesday. (Video image from C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were sworn into the U.S. Senate on Wednesday in a heavily guarded Capitol ceremony that formally grants Democrats control of the chamber and allows President Joe Biden to pursue a more aggressive legislative agenda.

Vice President Kamala Harris administered the oath of office to the two Democrats hours after she and Biden were inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol. Ossoff becomes the first Jewish senator in Georgia history, and Warnock becomes the state’s first-ever Black senator.

“This is the dawning of a new era for Georgia — a watershed moment in our state’s history,” Ossoff said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly before he was sworn in.

The two won their barrier-smashing victories over Republican incumbents on Jan. 5 after the most expensive Senate campaigns in the nation’s history. The Senate is now split 50-50, with Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. Ossoff won a full six-year term, while Warnock must run again in 2022.

They defeated former U.S Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who centered their campaigns on their loyalty to then-President Donald Trump, even echoing his calls to invalidate Georgia’s election despite state and federal officials forcefully debunking the false claims of widespread voter fraud.

The twin victories give Biden a better shot at fulfilling ambitious campaign promises that could have been stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate: a more robust coronavirus relief package, new efforts to curb climate change, legislation to expand voting rights and an immigration overhaul.

Both Ossoff and Warnock said they were eager to get to work fulfilling campaign promises, such as improving access to and the affordability of health care, and providing economic relief to American families.

“We have a lot of work to do around COVID-19 relief,” Warnock said after his swearing-in. “That work is urgent, and I look forward to being a part of that conversation.”

Ossoff and Warnock took their oaths of office alongside California’s Alex Padilla, who replaces Harris. Immediately after, they signed paperwork and bumped elbows with colleagues offering congratulations. Because Ossoff comes before Warnock in alphabetical order, he is considered Georgia’s senior senator.

The two participated in their first Senate votes Wednesday evening, joining with an overwhelming majority to confirm Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

Newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had earlier vowed to tackle big issues quickly.

“As the majority changes in the Senate, the Senate will do business differently,” he said.

Warnock and Ossoff also allow Democrats to lead an impeachment trial of Trump on charges that he incited a deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day after the Georgia runoffs. Schumer has pledged to move forward with the trial even though Wednesday was Trump’s final day in office. Conviction would require agreement by two-thirds of the Senate — that means if all Democrats are in favor, 17 Republicans would still need to join them. The Senate could also vote to bar Trump from seeking public office again.

The Democratic victories in Georgia were powered by soaring turnout from Black voters, including many who typically don’t participate in statewide runoffs, along with a continuing leftward shift in Atlanta’s suburbs.

During the swearing-in ceremony, Virginia U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine escorted in Warnock. Ossoff was led in by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and one of the leading voices for a criminal justice overhaul that Ossoff and Warnock have endorsed.

Ossoff took the oath on Hebrew Scripture once owned by Jacob Rothschild, the legendary leader of Atlanta’s historic Temple congregation whose opposition to segregation helped unite the Jewish community.

“That book isn’t just about the synagogue and my Jewish background,” said Ossoff, who earned his bar mitzvah at the Temple. “It’s also about the necessity of reanimating the spirit of the civil rights movement and build alliances to pass landmark civil rights legislation.”

Ossoff, 33, is the youngest member of the Senate since 1981. His path to office began in earnest four years ago, when he launched a campaign for an open U.S. House seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs that attracted national attention and record-setting spending.

After narrowly losing that 2017 bid to Republican Karen Handel, he marshaled the endorsements of civil rights hero John Lewis and other Democrats to mount a challenge against Perdue. He forced the former Fortune 500 chief executive into a runoff in November before defeating him by about 55,000 votes.

The route that Warnock, 51, took to the Senate differed from Ossoff’s. The pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic Atlanta congregation where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, long aimed to run for public office but didn’t enter the fray until shortly after Loeffler was appointed to the seat by Gov. Brian Kemp.

With support from Stacey Abrams and top national figures, Warnock scared other leading Democrats from entering the 20-candidate special election to emerge with Loeffler as the top two finishers in the November race. He beat Loeffler, a former financial executive, by roughly 93,000 ballots.

He was sworn in using a Bible given to him by Ebenezer members when he became senior pastor in 2005. His sister Valencia Warnock-King accompanied him for the day, and he noted in a press release that Wednesday would have been his father’s 104th birthday.

Warnock said the last time he had visited the U.S. Capitol complex, it was to protest alongside other pastors against GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He was arrested that day in 2017. Now he is back in an official capacity.

“The last time, I came as an activist; this time I come as a legislator,” he said. “But for me, it’s a continuation of the same work.”