US Congress convenes at start of high-stakes political week

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US Congress opened its new session at midday Sunday (Jan 3), kicking off an explosive week in Washington as Republican lawmakers vow to challenge Joe Biden’s election win, pro-Trump protesters gather and voters in Georgia decide who controls the Senate.

The rebel push by a group of 12 senators loyal to US President Donald Trump to block formal certification of Biden’s November victory is all but certain to fail, but has raised tensions on Capitol Hill as lawmakers returned to work.

Wednesday’s joint session – paired with a collection of rallies fueled by Trump’s refusal to accept defeat – is certain to be the high point of a fraught week showcasing the deep political divisions roiling the country.

On Sunday, lawmakers in the House of Representatives will vote for their leader, and top Democrat Nancy Pelosi faces a possibly tricky battle for reelection as speaker – an office that places her third in the line of succession for the presidency.

Pelosi’s Democratic Party holds a slim majority in the 435-seat chamber – temporarily at 434 after a member-elect died of Covid – and she is facing no open challenge, but she will need her caucus to remain firm.

Then on Monday, Trump stages one of his big, boisterous rallies in Georgia to campaign for two Republican candidates in a fiercely fought pair of runoff elections that will determine the balance of power in the Senate.

The special elections take place Tuesday, with Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler facing Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

“Georgia voters have so much power right now,” Ossoff told a campaign event in the small town of Eatonton on Saturday. “You have the power to make this happen.” Victory by Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats, and Biden, a major boost – Senate seats would be evenly divided between the parties at 50 each, but incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would wield a tie-breaking vote. Democrats already control the House.

“This is going to be a very tough battle but it is absolutely within the realm of possibility – in fact, the realm of likelihood – the Democrats can win,” Stacey Abrams, the charismatic former Georgia lawmaker who has emerged as a party leader, told CNN on Sunday.

Threat of chaos

Wednesday’s vote to certify the November election results, which Biden won handily with 306 Electoral College votes to 232 for Trump, would usually be a dry, pro-forma exercise.

But Trump has infused it with unprecedented drama as he continues to insist, without foundation, that the election was stolen from him, and as scores of Republican lawmakers back his efforts.

“An attempt to steal a landslide win. Can’t let it happen!” he tweeted. He has urged thousands of his supporters to come to Washington on Wednesday for protests. Similar past events have led to sporadic violence.

Beyond the 12 senators, more than 100 Trump loyalists in the House have vowed to join the last-ditch challenge, thereby forcing both houses of Congress to debate the objections raised before confirming Biden’s victory.

With Democrats controlling the House and many Republicans expected to vote to certify Biden’s election, the bid seems certain to fail.

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The manoeuvre nevertheless places Vice President Mike Pence in an awkward position: as presiding officer of the Senate, he must tally each state’s votes and announce the result – his boss’s loss.

The attention-getting initiative has divided Republicans.

Senator Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, on Saturday dismissed it as “nonsense,” saying: “The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has urged members to respect the Electoral College result.

Pelosi and the Covid factor

At noon Sunday, a maskless Pence gaveled in the new Congress before donning a mask to swear in the three dozen senators who were elected or re-elected to the 100-member chamber in November.

He congratulated each of them – including newly elected Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach, and Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired space shuttle commander – with an elbow bump.

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In the House, Pelosi has expressed confidence she has the support for reelection in a vote later Sunday, but the coronavirus pandemic has become a wild card.

A handful of lawmakers have been quarantining, and in-person voting is being required.

One newly elected Republican, 41-year-old Luke Letlow of Louisiana, died recently of Covid-19.

Pelosi, the first woman in US history to serve as House speaker, has signaled that this will be her final turn as speaker.

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