By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts was sworn in as the newest member of the U.S. Senate on Monday, replacing Republican Sen. Ben Sasse as the Senate returns from several weeks of recess to begin a new session of closely-divided government.
Ricketts is bringing the Senate back to its "full 100-person strength," said Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who welcomed Ricketts on the Senate floor after he was sworn into office by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The Republican is joining the Senate as Democrats navigate a 51-49 majority, having gained one seat in last year's election and with newly-Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema accepting committee assignments from Democrats. Ricketts replaces Sasse, who took a job as the president of the University of Florida two years into his second term.
Ricketts was appointed by his successor and political ally, Republican Gov. Jim Pillen, and will have to run in a special election in 2024 to fill out the rest of Sasse's term. If he wins, he would then run again in 2026 for a full six-year term.
The former governor was congratulated by Republicans and Democrats on the Senate floor. As is tradition, he was accompanied by Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska as he walked down the main aisle and stood at the Senate dais to take the oath of office.
Sasse was a fiercely independent Republican senator who often kept to himself and was a harsh critic of former President Donald Trump, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. Sasse was one of seven Republicans who voted to impeach the president shortly afterward, and Trump frequently lashed out at him.
Even though he was easily re-elected in 2020, Sasse spoke of "ups and downs" of his Senate career in a December farewell speech, saying his tenure "felt like a noogie and a slap and a head butt and a hug all at once."
Ricketts also has a complicated relationship with the former president, who has criticized him and his family for supporting Republican candidates who he opposed, including Pillen. Trump backed one of Pillen's primary opponents, Charles W. Herbster.
Nominating Ricketts earlier this month, after Sasse's departure, Pillen said that 111 people applied for the vacant seat and nine Republicans were interviewed. He said he chose Ricketts based on their shared conservatism and Ricketts' promise that he would later run to be elected to the seat.
"I don't believe in placeholders," Pillen said. "Placeholders don't have any accountability to the people."
While the new GOP senator's politics reflect his conservative constituents, some politicians in both parties raised questions about his appointment. Ricketts, who has put his own net worth at about $50 million, contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to Pillen's campaign.
Ricketts and his family members have used their fortunes to both push their political agendas and to get allies elected to key political seats. Ricketts' father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is worth an estimated $4 billion.
McConnell praised Ricketts' service in Nebraska and said the wealthy investor has "applied private sector savvy to the work of public administration with great effect."
"The people of Nebraska chose wisely in electing and re-electing Gov. Ricketts by huge margins, and their new governor chose wisely in sending his predecessor here to this chamber."