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Delaware's Coons, West Virginia's Manchin sworn in as U.S. senators

By Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 6:50 PM

The 112th Congress doesn't kick off until Jan. 5, but on Monday, the two winners of special elections in Delaware and West Virginia became the Senate's newest members.

Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (Del.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) were sworn in by Vice President Biden on the first day of Congress's lame-duck session.

Manchin, who until Friday served as the governor of West Virginia, bested businessman John Raese (R) earlier this month in the race for the seat of the late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). He succeeds Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.), whom Manchin himself appointed as a seatwarmer for the job over the summer.

Coons, the New Castle County Executive, cruised past tea-party-backed marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell (R) on Election Day to win the seat formerly held by Biden. Coons succeeds outgoing Sen. Ted Kaufman (D), a caretaker who also served as Biden's onetime chief-of-staff.

The additions of Coons and Manchin do not change the partisan makeup of the Senate, since both Democrats are succeeding other Democrats; the Senate's party breakdown remains at 59 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats) and 41 Republicans.

The swearing-in ceremony took place as members gathered in the Senate chamber for the first time since Republicans swept the House and narrowed Democrats' Senate majority earlier this month.

Manchin and Coons, both wearing dark suits with red ties, took the oath of office shortly after 4 p.m. Biden gave each man a hearty handshake; afterward, the two were swarmed by a bipartisan group of their new colleagues and other well-wishers.

In a brief interview after the ceremony, Biden joked about passing on his former seat to Coons.

"I'll tell you what, I almost changed my mind about giving that seat away, you know what I mean?" Biden laughed as he exited the chamber. "No, it was wonderful. He's going to be a great senator."

Kaufman, who noted that he and Coons first met when Coons was as an intern in Biden's Senate office more than 20 years ago, said that he was "really pleased" that Coons would be taking his place.

"I think he would've won even if Castle had won the primary," Kaufman said, referring to Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the popular longtime congressman who was bested by O'Donnell in the Republican primary. "Mike Castle is wonderful, but it's just that Chris is very, very good."

While Coons is likely to fall in line with members of his party on Democratic agenda items - Reid once famously called him his "pet" - Manchin is likely to be a different story; the West Virginian came under criticism from some Democrats during the campaign for going to great lengths to distance himself from the party agenda in a state where President Obama and national Democrats remain deeply unpopular.

In an interview after his swearing-in, Manchin declined to say on which issues he anticipates agreeing or disagreeing with his Senate Democratic colleagues.

"I'm going to put my country first in my decisions, and my state, and I think that's what needs to be done," he said. "If we disagree, we just disagree. You can respectfully agree to disagree, as long as you always have respect."

Manchin also said it was "overwhelming" to be elected to the seat held by Byrd for more than five decades.

"You think of the person who sat in the people's seat of West Virginia for that many years, and that I get a chance to do that - I said, if I can just follow in his footsteps, I'll be a good person," Manchin said.

Manchin will fill the remaining two years of Byrd's term; he'll likely face a tough re-election bid in 2012. Coons will fill the four years remaining in Biden's term and will face voters again in 2014.

Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who earlier this month won election to Obama's former Senate seat will be sworn in on Nov. 29.

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