New Congress kicks off in rare weekend session, with narrow majorities in both chambers

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The 117th Congress officially kicked off Sunday with both chambers navigating razor-thin majorities and a bitterly divisive 2020 election looming over them.

A day normally filled with pomp and circumstance was subdued in the rare weekend-session. Members needed to limit guests and stretch out votes as precautionary measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

In the House, the Attending Physician of the Capitol gave clearance to a small handful of members still in quarantine from both parties to vote in person via a plexiglass enclosure in one of the House galleries. Special rules allowing proxy voting expired with the last Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, needs to prevail in a very tight vote to retain the speaker’s gavel, with 427 members — 220 Democrats and 207 Republicans — present for the session’s first vote.

The speaker of the House is whoever gets a majority of those members present voting by name. The number for a majority could shift, depending on how many members vote ‘present’ and neutralizing their vote.

A few rank-and-file Democrats have said they won’t be voting for Mrs. Pelosi, such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan who said she’ll be marking herself present.

“I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for more Midwestern leaders, people who represent areas like where I’m from. And also I think it’s important to be training the next generation of leaders, right? As just a healthy habit of building the bench,” Ms. Slotkin told reporters.

Mrs. Pelosi and her top lieutenants remain confident that she’ll have enough votes to clinch the vote.

Across Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the senators and acknowledged the difficult partisan lines lawmakers will navigate in the new session.

“To say the 117th Congress convenes at a challenging time would indeed be an understatement. From political division to a deadly pandemic to adversaries around the world, the hurdles before us are many and they are serious,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“We gavel in today like 116 prior Senates have gaveled in before us: With plenty of disagreements and policy differences among our ranks,” he said. “But all swearing the same oath, to support and defend the same Constitution.”

Control of the upper chamber for the rest of the session is still up in the air. Georgia’s two runoff elections on Tuesday will determine which party has the majority, with Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue facing Democratic challengers — respectively, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Currently, the chamber leans towards GOP control, with 51 members to the Democrats’ 48, until the victors of the Georgia races take their oaths.

Ms. Loeffler is still in her seat while Mr. Perdue’s term has expired. Democrats need to win both seats to take control of the upper chamber on a 50-50 split, thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice Prsident-elect Kamala D. Harris.

The first major test for the new Congress will come Wednesday when it takes up certification of the Electoral College votes. A coalition of Republicans in both chambers plans to contest the electors.

The House and Senate both would need to agree to reject a given state’s slate of presidential electors.

If Mr. Biden’s electoral vote total of 306 were reduced below 270, the number needed to win the presidency, the Democrat-led House would choose the next president and the Senate the next vice president.

• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.

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