New U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts is sworn in, casts first vote on ceremonial first day
OMAHA — Nebraska has a new member of Congress after U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts was sworn in Monday in the Old Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol, with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., at his side.
Gov. Jim Pillen appointed Ricketts to the vacant seat Jan. 12, when the Senate was in recess. Senators reconvened Monday afternoon.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attended Ricketts’ swearing-in, along with the rest of the Nebraska congressional delegation and members of Ricketts’ family.
The former governor replaces Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who resigned the seat Jan. 8 to become president of the University of Florida.
Learning the ropes
Ricketts said he looked forward to learning the ropes of the Senate from Fischer, whom he called “my mentor” in the new role.
“She is very well-respected here,” Ricketts said. “She certainly was when she was in Lincoln … and one of the top legislators there.”
Fischer, reached Monday by phone, said she was “excited to have (Ricketts) for a partner in the Senate.” She said they “work well together, as do our staffs.”
Ricketts was greeted on the Senate floor by Republican Sens. Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, John Cornyn of Texas and Ted Budd of North Carolina.
Ricketts, who was term-limited in his role as governor, said he was humbled by walking into work at the U.S. Capitol for the first time, feeling much as he did on his first day as Nebraska governor.
“One of the things that is really impressed upon you when you walk through the Capitol is the history of our great nation, and what a privilege it is to be able to serve as a senator,” he said.
Ricketts cast his first vote as a senator at 4:26 p.m. Central Time, joining most of his fellow Republicans in voting no on confirming Brendan Owens as assistant secretary of Defense for energy. The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Owens 60-35, with 13 Republicans voting yes, including McConnell.
Ricketts said he was still waiting to learn about his committee assignments. He said he hopes to focus on lowering taxes and making government work better. He also expressed interest in agricultural trade policy and shoring up national defense against China and other threats.
He said he is ready to shift from the executive branch to the legislative one and looks forward to serving as part of a new team.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Ricketts would pick up the job quickly.
“It will be an adjustment,” said Bacon, who represents the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District. “But he knows that and has been preparing.”
The Senate’s unique role
Ricketts said McConnell has counseled him on the patience he will need to serve in the Senate and that part of the job is to provide stability.
“That’s the opportunity, to be able to have impact by working with a long-term view about how we accomplish some of these goals,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts already knows many of the players. He lost a bid for the Senate in 2006 to Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the same year 3rd District Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., was elected to Congress.
Ricketts helped former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood get elected last year to represent the Lincoln-heavy 1st District.
Ricketts and his family are major national GOP donors. His brother Todd led Republican fundraising efforts for the 2020 race to re-elect former President Donald Trump.
Elections to come
Ricketts has said he intends to run when the Senate seat is up for election in 2024 and 2026. He could face one or more primary challengers next year, including former GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster.
Some Nebraskans, both Republican and Democrat, have questioned the propriety of his being appointed by a gubernatorial candidate he backed. Ricketts donated $1.3 million to help elect Pillen, including giving to outside groups.
“There’s nothing left to say,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “He bought the seat.”
Ricketts said he and his wife, Susanne Shore, are still looking for a place to stay while in Washington. He spent the night before his swearing-in at his mother’s home in the D.C. area.
Ricketts said he will remember his first day in the Senate as fondly as his first day as governor. In addition to the swearing-in and casting his first vote, he attended a reception with 100-130 people, including about 75 from Nebraska and some old friends from college he hadn’t seen in a while. Then he went back to work.
“It’s been a ton of fun, you know,” Ricketts said.