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Diverse class of lawmakers ready for close-up in US Congress

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Dozens of members of the freshman class of the US Congress, which will be sworn in on January 3, 2019, gathered for a photograph on the steps of the US Capitol

Dozens of members of the freshman class of the US Congress, which will be sworn in on January 3, 2019, gathered for a photograph on the steps of the US Capitol (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - Dozens of newly elected members of Congress gathered in Washington Wednesday, illustrating a diverse freshman class of House lawmakers who will be sworn in under the next phase of Donald Trump's presidency.

A record number of women, and scores of minorities including Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans and members of the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities, will fill the ranks of the 116th Congress when it convenes beginning January 3.

Democrats will be at the helm of the US House of Representatives through the 2020 elections, having bested Republicans in this month's contentious midterms.

"We have a lot of people who have never held public office before but come from a really rich background of education or organizing, and I think it brings a really incredible, fresh perspective," Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal rising star, told reporters after a class photo on the Capitol steps.

"We'll see once we get in there. But I'm hopeful," said the New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, who at 29 is set to become the youngest House member.

Democrats already have a major task at hand: deciding on their leader in November 28 party elections.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the country's first female speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011, has declared her candidacy to take up the gavel anew.

Pelosi, 78, is the heavy favorite, but some newcomers have said they may not back her.

Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Michigan's Rashida Tlaib have said it was too soon to conclude whether they will support Pelosi.

New Jersey congressman-elect Jeff Van Drew stands opposed to a Pelosi speakership.

"That's the pledge that I made when I ran for office and it's the pledge that I'm going to keep," he said.

Across the political aisle, House Republicans elected Kevin McCarthy to be their minority leader, as the California congressman easily overcame a challenge from the party's far-right conservative wing.

McCarthy is currently the number two Republican after House Speaker Paul Ryan, who did not seek re-election.

The 53-year-old comfortably bested Jim Jordan, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

"We serve in a divided government, in a divided country. Our goal is to unite us back together again," McCarthy said.

But he issued a stern warning to Democrats if they focus more on disruption than improving Americans' lives.

"Let me be very clear," McCarthy said. "If their agenda is simply investigation, impeachment, and not focused on the hardworking American public, we'll be there to defend the American public."

Republicans also elevated Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, into leadership.

The Wyoming congresswoman, 52, will be the new Republican conference chair, tasked with presenting an aggressive messaging platform as the party seeks to reclaim the majority in 2020.

In the Senate, Republican Chuck Grassley will replace retiring Orrin Hatch as president pro-tempore of the Senate, the chamber's longest serving member from the party in power.

The post is third in line to the presidency, after vice president and House speaker.