January 29, 2023

OMAHA — Nebraska has a new member of Congress after US Sen. Pete Ricketts was sworn in Monday in the Old Senate chamber in the US Capitol with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., by his side.

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen announces former Gov. Pete Ricketts as his choice to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy on Thursday, January 12, 2023, in an announcement at the state Capitol. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner.)

Gov. Jim Pillen appointed Ricketts to the vacant seat on Jan. 12 when the Senate was on recess. The senators met again on Monday afternoon.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attended Rickett’s swearing-in ceremony along with the rest of the Nebraska congressional delegation and members of Ricketts’ family.

The former governor replaces Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who left office Jan. 8 to become president of the University of Florida.

Learn the basics

Ricketts said he’s looking forward to learning Senate basics from Fischer, whom he’s called “my mentor” in the new role.

“She’s well respected here,” Ricketts said. “She certainly was when she was in Lincoln … and one of the top legislators there.”

Fischer, who could be reached by phone Monday, said she was “excited to have (Ricketts) as a partner in the Senate.” She said they “work well together, as do our staff.”

Ricketts was welcomed into the Senate by Republican Senators Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville from Alabama, John Cornyn from Texas and Ted Budd from North Carolina.

Ricketts, who was serving a limited term as governor, said he was humbled when he first went to work in the US Capitol and felt similar to his first day as governor of Nebraska.

US Senate Building
US Capitol (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

“One of the things that really strikes you as 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.

First vote

Ricketts cast his first vote as Senator at 4:26 p.m. Central Time, like most of his Republican compatriots, voting no to confirm Brendan Owens as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy. The Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed Owens 60-35 with 13 Republicans voting yes, including McConnell.

Ricketts said he is still waiting to hear about his duties on the committee. He said he hopes to focus on cutting taxes and improving governance. He also expressed interest in agricultural trade policy and strengthening national defenses against China and other threats.

He said he is ready to move from the executive branch to the legislature and looks forward to becoming part of a new team.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Ricketts would take on the job quickly.

“It’s going to be an adjustment,” said Bacon, who represents the Omaha-based 2nd congressional district. “But he knows that and has prepared.”

The unique role of the Senate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office in the US Capitol in Washington, DC on February 17, 2022 (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Ricketts said McConnell advised him on the patience he will need to serve in the Senate and that part of his job is to provide stability.

“This is an opportunity to make an impact by working with a long-term perspective on how to achieve some of these goals,” Ricketts said.

Many of the players already know Ricketts. He lost a Senate bid to Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., in 2006, the same year 3rd District Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., was elected to Congress.

Ricketts helped former Legislative Speaker Mike Flood get elected last year to represent the Lincoln-leaning 1st Circuit.

Ricketts and his family are major national GOP donors. His brother Todd led Republican fundraisers for the 2020 race for former President Donald Trump’s re-election.

elections are coming

Ricketts has announced that he will run when the Senate seat is up for election in 2024 and 2026. He could face one or more key challengers next year, including former GOP gubernatorial nominee Charles Herbster.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts addresses a breakfast group at the Hy-Vee in Sarpy County on Wednesday, November 2nd. He was joined by US Representatives Don Bacon (left) and Mike Flood. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Some Nebraskans, both Republicans and Democrats, have questioned the appropriateness of his appointment by a gubernatorial candidate he supported. Ricketts donated $1.3 million to support Pill Choice, including donations to outside groups.

“There’s nothing more to say,” said Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “He bought the seat.”

Ricketts said he and his wife, Susanne Shore, were still looking for a place to stay in Washington. He spent the night before his swearing-in at his mother’s home in the DC area.

Ricketts said he will remember his first day in the Senate as fondly as he did his first day as governor. In addition to being sworn in and casting his first vote, he attended a reception attended by between 100 and 130 people, including about 75 from Nebraska and some old friends from college whom he hadn’t seen in a while. Then he went back to work.

“It was a lot of fun, you know,” Ricketts said.

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