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Michigan gains new reps as McClain, Meijer sworn into office

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan's two newest lawmakers are among five dozen new House members sworn into office Sunday as the new session of Congress opened, though with less ceremonial pomp than usual due to the pandemic. 

U.S. Reps. Lisa McClain and Peter Meijer got the keys to their offices Sunday and picked up their official congressional pins for the 117th Congress, as well as their new electronic House voting cards. 

"I'm inspired. I'm so excited to be here. It's the beginning of a journey — to start to give back to the community," said McClain, who was elected to succeed retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden. 

U.S. Rep-elect Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, with her dog, Peanut, in her new office on Capitol Hill, shortly before her swearing in on Sunday.

Aides were still setting up their phones and computers as the lawmakers made their way to the House floor to respond to the quorum call and then cast their first vote — for election of the House speaker. Democrat Nancy Pelosi won, as expected, but as Republicans, both Meijer and McClain voted for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

"This will be a hectic week, not the least of which is because until tomorrow, I don’t technically have a staff. We just got access to official Twitter account today, our Facebook channel," said Meijer, who noted he was sitting in his desk chair for the first time. 

Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican from Grand Rapids Township, poses for his official congressional photo.

"When it comes to being able to communicate, those are things that we are only able to start really doing today and tomorrow. We're ready on the policy side, but the IT and support networks are something that we will be building up from scratch."

Typically, the corridors and offices of Capitol Hill are swarming with family members and friends of lawmakers as they gather for receptions and celebrations of the first day of a new Congress.

But there were few parties this year. Under restrictions related to the coronavirus, only the incoming freshmen were permitted to bring guests, one each, to witness their swearing in from the House gallery. McClain, 54, of Bruce Township brought her husband, Mike. Meijer, 32, of Grand Rapids Township brought his wife, Gabriella. 

Members were sworn in Sunday evening in seven smaller groups to allow for distancing in the House chamber, rather than en masse.

Meijer, who was elected to succeed retiring Rep. Justin Amash, said he understood the rationale for the precautions but that it has been difficult to connect with colleagues.

"It's been this difficult to build relationships when you're spending your time distanced and without being able to have that sense of kind of camaraderie and cohesion," he said.

"It may be setting us back, but I'm hopeful that we'll still be able to bring back those components in the coming months as we continue to accelerate the vaccination distribution and work towards being able to put this painful COVID moment behind us."

McClain said it was unfortunate she couldn't bring her supporters to Washington to mark the occasion.

"I had so many people help me get here. This would have been an opportunity for me to say thank you," she said. "I wouldn't be here without their support." 

She and Meijer wore lapel pins in the shape of the state of Louisiana to honor of their colleague, Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, who died last week at age 41 from complications of COVID-19. 

Both lawmakers are eager to tackle their policy priorities, as soon as Congress can "get through this COVID moment," Meijer said.

McClain wants to focus on jobs, the economy and reopening businesses. "We have to put more power back in the people's hands," she said.

She is part of a record crop of GOP women taking office, doubling their numbers in the House from 13 last term.

The House is beginning the year with the narrowest majority in 20 years, 222-211, and with control of the Senate still uncertain, pending the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia. 

Pelosi was narrowly reelected as speaker with one Michigan Democrat, Elissa Slotkin of Holly, voting "present," taking no position on the speakership. She did the same in 2019.

Slotkin told reporters on the Hill that she was making good on the commitment she made in March 2018 before she was elected. 

“That it's important to me that I live up to the commitments I make to my district. And I've been pretty vocal about the need for more Midwestern leaders, people who represent areas like where I'm from," Slotkin said.

"And also, I think it's important to be training a next generation of leaders, right? As just a healthy habit of building the bench."

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said after the many crises of the her last term, from impeachment to the coronavirus, she was looking forward to some "compliance to structure, to norms" under the new Biden administration. 

"I want to get back to that. I just want to breathe," she said. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, was sworn into his second term Sunday after winning reelection last fall. He said Sunday one of his first orders of business is to examine the way the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed, saying he’s concerned that it’s not being done in an efficient way.

"The federal government needs to step up and do a whole lot more than it's doing. I'm hoping that that will change with the new administration coming in on January 20,” Peters said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, acknowledged that the Democrats' thin majority in the House will be difficult in terms of moving legislation, but noted that Democrats will now be moving in concert with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House.

"We have to find a way to put together legislation that potentially gets us 218 votes," said Kildee, chief deputy whip for House Democrats.

"Sometimes that will be all Democrats, and sometimes and probably more often that will include some members on the other side. It's going to, by nature, force us to do something I think most Americans want us to do anyway, and that is trying to work in a bipartisan fashion."

mburke@detroitnews.com