NASHVILLE — Nearly a century after Tennessee's passage of the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote, Republican Marsha Blackburn will make state history Thursday when she takes the oath of office and becomes the state's first U.S. female senator.
Blackburn, who just finished serving eight terms in the U.S. House, said in an interview Wednesday that "breaking a barrier that is a glass ceiling is something that's not lost to me."
She said she will have a later ceremonial swearing-in event with some 300 expected attendees at which she will highlight the role Tennessee played in 1920. State legislators here ratified the 19th Amendment, ensuring women's right to vote.
"I will tell you, I have really approached this transition just with so much gratitude to the voters of the state who elected me and are entrusting me with defending their freedoms and fighting for them every day," said Blackburn, 66. She succeeds Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga, who didn't seek re-election last year.
After the swearing in, it's on to Senate business in the 116th Congress for the now-former representative from Brentwood, a conservative who in November bested Democrat and former governor Phil Bredesen. President Donald Trump came to the state repeatedly to campaign on her behalf, including a last-minute stop in Chattanooga.
Blackburn is now one of nine freshman senators — seven Republicans and two Democrats. And unlike the U.S. House, where Democrats won control in the November election, Senate Republicans retain a majority, with 53 of the chamber's 100 seats.
"People sent me here to get things done and that is my focus," Blackburn said. "They like the fact that President Trump has moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, that he has gotten the economy going again, that we've had the best jobs growth we've had in decades. And that he's rebuilding our military, that he's fighting ISIS, that he's holding China to account."
Citing new Trump appointees to federal judgeships as well as Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation last year to the U.S. Supreme Court, Blackburn said Americans "put [Trump] in office to accomplish those things and they feel as if he's delivering."
Blackburn is also staunchly backing Trump's partial government shutdown, impacting some 800,000 federal workers, as the president and House majority Democrats battle over his promised wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
"They [Tennesseans] see this as something precious," she said. "They want the border secured against these drug traffickers and human traffickers that are running across the southern border."
She thinks Tennesseans "feel like now is the time to solve this problem, to secure that border, to make certain that we're going to be able to be a sovereign nation, that we know who's coming in our nation, that we know they're not part of a gang or trafficking organization."
Later in the day, Trump met with Republican and Democratic Senate and House leaders. There was no agreement and the impasse continues into its 13th day.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted that "Marsha and I were elected to the United States Congress at the same time in 2002, and we have worked well together since then. I look forward to an even closer relationship with her as she joins the United States Senate."
Blackburn said she plans on working on many of the same issues she did in the House, where she had served on the chamber's Energy and Commerce Committee. Energy will be an area of focus, considering that Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a huge presence in Tennessee, she said. Health care delivery and insurance issues are also among her interests.
"Those are things I have worked on quite a bit," she said, also citing rural broadband expansion, online privacy protections affecting children and various technical issues "where I've been a leader."
Blackburn was chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Asked about the atmosphere and sometimes slower pace in the Senate, where filibuster rules often empower the minority party and encourage some degree of compromise to get things passed, Blackburn said, "I'm not one for sitting around or wasting time. So I will probably continue to work at the same pace and encourage my Senate colleagues to pick up the pace and accomplish things that people want to see accomplished."
That includes making Trump's 2017 tax cuts permanent and what she calls regulatory relief on environmental issues.
"I got to tell you that's a big one with our energy producers and our farmers, our agricultural community in Tennessee. [Farmers] would like to see more bilateral trade agreements."
She voiced optimism that Trump's renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement — dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, will be approved, noting it will benefit Tennessee's large auto manufacturing presence, which includes Volkswagen in Chattanooga.
And she hopes Trump and Chinese leaders will arrive at "something solid" on trade.
As to what committees she will end up on, Blackburn demurred on speculation she could wind up on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans are seeking to put a woman on the panel after last year's controversies over Kavanaugh's nomination hearings amid accusations that while a teenager he had sexually assaulted a teenage girl at a party. All the GOP panel members were men.
There's also speculation that Blackburn could wind up on one of the Senate's "A list" panels — the Armed Services Committee. And there's talk she could be in line for the Senate Commerce Committee.
"Well, let's wait for [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] to announce what's going to happen with committees," she said. "But I'm certainly going to be there to serve wherever there's going to be the best fit for me. I've got some things I would like to continue working on, and I think he's aware of that."
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said that despite Blackburn being a freshman, "just being a senator gives you clout as opposed to being a new House member."
"That's the advantage," he said. "The disadvantage is she'd moved up pretty far on [House] Energy and Commerce and had some collateral within the Republican Party in the House."
While serving in the House, Blackburn often became a spokeswoman with frequent appearances on Fox News and other conservative news media outlets.
Oppenheimer said Blackburn may discover that in the upper chamber "there are going to be too many senators standing between her and the cameras."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.