Congress convened for its 117th session on Sunday, swearing in lawmakers amid extraordinary political turmoil as Republicans worked to overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, crucial Senate runoffs in Georgia loomed and the coronavirus surge imposed severe limits on familiar Capitol ceremonies.
The Democrat Nancy Pelosi was set to be re-elected as House speaker. But most attention was focused on the Senate, where Mitch McConnell could be carrying out his final acts as Republican majority leader.
If Democrats John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock unseat Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia on Tuesday, the chamber will split 50-50. As vice-president, Kamala Harris would then hold a deciding vote, boosting Biden’s hopes of legislative success.
In an extraordinarily acrimonious campaign, early voting has shattered runoff records, with 3m ballots cast. African American turnout, critical to the Democrats’ chances, has been robust: about a third of ballots have come from self-identified Black voters, up from around 27% in the November contests which did not produce conclusive winners.
On Sunday Stacey Abrams, the defeated Democrat in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election who now advocates for voting rights, told ABC’s This Week her party “did very well in vote by mail, we did very well in early vote, but we know election day is going to be the likely high-turnout day for Republicans, so we need Democrats who haven’t cast their ballots to turn out.
“What we’re so excited about is that we haven’t stopped reaching those voters. Millions of contacts have been made, thousands of new registrations have been held. We know that at least 100,000 people who did not vote in the general election are now voting in this election.”
Harris was to campaign in Georgia on Sunday, with Biden following on Monday. Trump has alarmed Republicans with attacks on GOP state officials and the integrity of the runoffs, as part of his baseless claims of electoral fraud in November. In a bombshell report, the Washington Post detailed a Saturday call in which Trump pressured Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to overturn the presidential result, saying a failure to do so could damage Republican chances in the Senate runoffs.
Nonetheless, on Monday Trump will rally in support of Loeffler and Perdue.
Perdue continues to quarantine after contact with a Covid-19 infected person. Nonetheless, the four candidates have been at each others’ throats.
On Fox News Sunday, Loeffler, a keen Trump ally, aired allegations at Warnock regarding a child abuse investigation and domestic violence and continued to deny his claims she enriched herself in stock dealings following private Covid-19 briefings.
“Why has he refused to denounce Marxism and socialism?” Loeffler said. “He’s attacked our police officers calling them gangsters, thugs and bullies, he said ‘You can’t serve God and the military’, he’s praised Fidel Castro [and] Karl Marx.”
Warnock and Ossoff have seized on allegations of stock-dealing impropriety by Perdue, who dumped assets damaged by the pandemic and bought cheap stock that Covid-19 restrictions then caused to soar in value.
In contests in which the Black vote is so important, race has also assumed a central role. Warnock is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr once preached. Loeffler has run attack ads using pieces of Warnock’s sermons.
“The Republican attack is not just against Warnock, it’s against the Black church and the Black religious experience,” the Rev Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and assistant pastor of Ebenezer from 1978 to 1984, told Reuters.
McDonald described Warnock’s views as consistent with the church’s opposition to racism, police brutality, poverty and militarism.
“I don’t care what you think about Warnock,” he said. “We’ve got to defend our church, our preaching, or prophetic tradition, our community involvement and engagement. We’re going to defend that.”
Loeffler said in a tweet last month she was not attacking the church. “We simply exposed your record in your own words,” she wrote.
Ossoff courted controversy when he recently accused Loeffler of “campaigning with a Klansman”. In fact Loeffler posed, she said unknowingly, with a former member of the far-right group.
Asked on CNN’s State of the Union if it was “important for candidates to tell the truth”, Ossoff said: “It is. And it’s even more distressing that this isn’t an isolated incident.
“Kelly Loeffler has repeatedly posed for photographs and been seen campaigning alongside radical white supremacists. And I believe they’re drawn to her campaign, because her campaign has consisted almost entirely of racist attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the Black church.
“…And it’s happening at the same time that Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and Georgia Republicans are mounting a vicious assault on voting rights in Georgia, lawsuit after lawsuit to disenfranchise black voters, purge the rolls, remove ballot drop boxes.
“And I believe that one of the reasons we’re seeing such record-shattering turnout … is that Georgians are defying those efforts to rip away their voting rights and standing up and saying, ‘We’re going to make our voices heard.’”
Developments in Washington have also touched the Georgia races. Loeffler and Perdue both backed Trump’s demands for Congress to increase $600 Covid relief payments to $2,000, which McConnell blocked.
Ossoff leapt on the opportunity to point out Perdue’s “hypocrisy” for opposing last year’s first relief payment of $1,200 and “obstructing” efforts to provide further direct relief for more than eight months.
Whichever of the candidates wins a passage to Washington will join a new Congress already home to a politician from the extremities of Georgia politics.
Among House newcomers sworn in Sunday was Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has supported the Q-Anon conspiracy theory and was among a group of Republicans who visited Trump at the White House recently, to discuss the effort to undo the election.