WASHINGTON – The Senate returned to session Tuesday, a day before President-elect Joe Biden was set to take the oath of office, and Sen. Maria Cantwell said she is hopeful this week will mark the start of a new era in American politics – one that sees more bipartisan legislating and a more active Congress.
With Tuesday’s certification of the election results in Georgia, Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are poised to give Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate along with control of the White House and House of Representatives. The newly Democratic-controlled Senate will have a lot on its hands, including taking up Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda, confirming his cabinet nominees and beginning the unprecedented post-presidency impeachment trial of departing President Donald Trump.
That packed agenda will be complicated by a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes, technically giving her party the slimmest of majorities, but Cantwell said she and her fellow Democrats want to avoid party-line votes.
“Obviously, because we’re in a closely divided Senate, we want to hear from our colleagues,” Cantwell said. “Because nothing’s going to get done if we don’t do it in a bipartisan fashion.”
When the upper chamber reconvened Tuesday, less than two weeks had passed since a pro-Trump mob laid siege to the Capitol building Jan. 6, fueled by the outgoing president’s unfounded claims of vote rigging. Partisan tensions were still high, but Cantwell said the nation would overcome the threat to its democratic system.
“It is just so heartbreaking to think that the United States of America has fought wars over the ideals of our country,” Cantwell said, “and then to think people (are) creating violence and breaking into the Capitol because of the president’s false information.”
“Our country is going to move forward. That’s what a democracy is about.”
The House voted to impeach Trump on Jan. 13 on a single charge of “incitement of insurrection” for his role in the violence just a week earlier, when his supporters marched to Capitol Hill from a rally outside the White House where he repeated the debunked conspiracy theory that Democrats rigged an election that saw some GOP candidates defeat Democratic challengers in key House and Senate races.
Republicans were favored to win both runoffs in Georgia and hold onto their Senate majority, but rather than stumping for his party’s candidates, Trump spent two months claiming he had been cheated out of a second term in the White House and demanded the two GOP senators back his bid to overturn the election results.
The Senate could begin an impeachment trial as soon as next week, but Democratic leaders may delay the proceedings to buy senators time to confirm some of Biden’s key cabinet secretaries and start work on the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill his team unveiled Jan. 14.
Cantwell said she plans to vote to convict Trump, though she declined to weigh in on when the trial should start.
“I do believe the president should be held accountable,” Cantwell said. “When that process takes place, I’ll be voting for impeachment.”
But the more urgent priority for the Senate, Cantwell said, is tackling COVID-19.
“The pandemic is continuing to plague the health and safety of our citizens and the economy,” she said, “and I think that what we have to focus on right away is the continued response to make sure people have proper equipment, that the vaccine gets rolled out in a more efficient way and that we prepare for a continuation of the challenges the pandemic presents.”
Congress passed a roughly $900 billion relief package in December after months of deadlocked negotiations, but Biden and other Democrats have called that bill a “down payment” that should be followed by more comprehensive legislation. After Democrats officially gain the Senate majority Wednesday afternoon, Cantwell will chair the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and will play a major role in shaping the specifics of the relief bill.
“We’re going to start off by listening to people in the state, and in the Spokane region, about what they think is important to focus on,” Cantwell said. “We want to hear from people about the impacts of COVID on commerce, on transportation and what else we need to be doing.”
The influential committee has jurisdiction over all interstate commerce and several policy areas that are especially relevant to Washington, including aviation, scientific research and NASA’s space exploration. She will be the first woman to chair the panel once led for more than two decades by another Washington Democrat, Sen. Warren Magnuson.
The closely divided Senate could encourage lawmakers to focus on legislative priorities both parties agree on, such as improving the country’s aging infrastructure. Cantwell will be a key player in crafting that legislation.
“We think that there will be a big infrastructure package,” she said. “We’re probably going to have to address the pandemic impacts while thinking about what our transportation infrastructure investment (should be) for the future.”
Investing in rail and highway freight infrastructure, Cantwell said, could help create more jobs in Washington, which benefits from high-volume interstate and international trade through its western ports.
Cantwell said she hopes to secure more funding from the National Science Foundation, which her committee oversees, for universities in Eastern Washington. She cited NASA’s Artemis program, whose astronauts include two Eastern Washington women, as an example of what’s possible when more women and girls get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will convene Thursday for the confirmation hearing of Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary.
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