WASHINGTON — Jill Tokuda — and the rest of Congress for that matter — will just have to wait.

Tokuda was elected to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in November to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele. She was supposed to be sworn in Tuesday, but GOP infighting over who should be speaker derailed the celebration.

Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, repeatedly failed to garner enough votes within his caucus to win the speaker’s gavel, something that hasn’t happened in at least 100 years.

“I don’t think anybody quite expected this to happen,” Tokuda said.

Jill Tokuda is waiting to be sworn in as Republicans fight over who should be the next speaker of the House. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023

The House adjourned until Wednesday at which point lawmakers are expected to try again to elect a new speaker. Until that happens, new members will not be sworn in and legislative business will be put on hold.

Tokuda had planned to take the oath of office on her late mother’s bible.

She even played the part of an incoming member of Congress from Hawaii by handing out chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and donning traditional lei, including one made of white orchids that was gifted to her by her mentor and former boss, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.

But it was her clothing — a blouse and red blazer — that she wanted to stand out.

The print on her shirt was made from an image of the Kue Petitions that were submitted to Congress in 1897 to oppose U.S. annexation of Hawaii. It was signed by both Native Hawaiians and Asians who feared losing their right to vote under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“To me, it was just very symbolic,” Tokuda said. “When we come here, we represent all of our history and we represent all our facts and our truths, which is not always just nice palm trees and wonderful pineapples. It’s complicated and it’s messy. It requires us to acknowledge it and do something about it.”

Many Democrats seemed to relish in the GOP’s struggles to elect a speaker after gaining control of the House in midterm elections.

Jill Tokuda says she’s planning to be sworn in on her mother’s bible. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023

Several highlighted the fact that they stood united behind their own chosen leader, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who is succeeding Nancy Pelosi as the head of the House Democratic caucus.

Tokuda said she’s hopeful that Tuesday’s disarray will prove to her colleagues in the other party that working with Democrats would be in their best interest moving forward, especially if they want to “bring it home” for their districts.

“This just demonstrates that Republicans are going to have to look across the aisle at us to be able to get good things done for the American people,” Tokuda said. “I still have hope.”

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, who also won reelection and was decked out in celebratory lei, presented a similar message when asked about the GOP theatrics.

He said there was “ample evidence” that McCarthy would struggle to coalesce the many factions within his party, particularly those on the far-right who have been the biggest blockade in his years long quest for speaker.

What Case didn’t anticipate, he said, was just how deep the rift was within the caucus.

“What this really indicates more than anything else is that there’s just a real brand of extremism in that party and we’re seeing that play out,” Case said.

Tokuda and Case weren’t the only members of Hawaii’s delegation to witness the spectacle.

The chaotic events in the House didn’t affect the Senate so Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz was sworn in Tuesday after easily winning a second six-year term in November.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz with his wife, Linda, being sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz/2023

The ceremony was a relatively rote affair presided over by Vice President Kamala Harris. Like Tokuda and Case, Schatz wore a lei for the occasion and was joined by his wife, Linda.

He said he’s looking forward to working with a 51-vote majority in the Senate after spending the past two years trying to navigate a 50-50 split with Republicans with Harris as the tie-breaker.

Whether that will allow Congress to get anything done, however, is an open question, he said, especially with Republicans in control of the House.

The fact that the GOP failed to elect a speaker — something Schatz said was “truly extraordinary” given the fact that it’s historically perfunctory — doesn’t bode well for the future, especially when it comes to governing.

“Today is supposed to be a drama-free day,” Schatz said. “But it’s also a reminder that all those arcane scripts that are being read and agreed to by unanimous consent depend on newly elected legislators behaving like adults, and I don’t think we can count on that yet in the House.”

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