Thursday, January 04, 2007

Congress convenes with Dems in power

WASHINGTON - The 110th Congress convened Thursday with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. "Today we make history. Today we change the direction of our country," exulted Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), poised to become the first woman speaker in history.

With her grandchildren joining her for the historic moment, Pelosi beamed as her name was placed in nomination and the party-line roll call commenced.

Both Democrats and Republicans alike pledged cooperation despite years of bitter partisanship and gridlock, to try to get the 110th Congress off on a productive note.

"The voters are upset with Congress and the partisan gridlock," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The voters want a government that focuses on their needs. The voters want change. Together, we must deliver that change."

House Democrats also were ready to impose a ban on gifts from lobbyists and a clampdown on travel funded by private interests — measures crafted in response to the ethics scandals that weakened Republicans in last fall's elections.

"The Democrats are back," Pelosi said earlier Thursday. She will lead a fractious House divided 233-202, with Democrats claiming control for the first time since 1994.

In remarks prepared for delivery later after her swearing in later Thursday, Pelosi said: "The election of 2006 was a call to change — not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country. Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in
Iraq. The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end."

Democrats maintain a tenuous hold on a Senate divided 51-49, with ailing South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson slowly recovering in a Washington hospital weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage. There are 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans and two independents, who both vote with Democrats.

The fragile Senate margin ensures little Democratic-sponsored legislation can pass without support from at least some Republicans.

"Our efforts are going to be to work in a bipartisan basis in an open fashion to solve the problems of the American people," said Reid.

Taking the oath of office were 10 new senators — eight of them Democrats, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Joe Lieberman returned to the Senate for a fourth term after losing a raucous Democratic primary in Connecticut but winning in November running as an Independent.

Vice President Dick Cheney swore in the new and returning senators, beginning with a group including Senate President Pro Tem, Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. — third in the line of presidential succession — elected for a record ninth term. In the gallery overhead, former President Clinton and daughter Chelsea applauded and waved to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who was sworn in for a second term.

The House has 55 new members, all but 13 of them Democrats. Two of them, Baron Hill of Indiana and Nick Lampson of Texas, had previously served.

As the House gathered, dozens of lawmakers' children and grandchildren joined them on the floor, including Pelosi's six grandchildren.

The day capped the rise of several Democratic veterans to powerful committee posts — including Charles Rangel of New York as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and David Obey on the powerful Appropriations panel — after 12 dispiriting years in the minority.

House Republicans, meanwhile, adjusted to their unaccustomed roles out of power, grousing about being shut out of any chance to affect the early agenda.

The convening of the Democratic-led Congress also opened a new chapter in the presidency of Bush, who faces divided government as he cements his legacy in his final two years in the White House. Bush had a light public schedule Thursday, intended at least in part to let the new Congress have its day.

House Democrats planned quick action on legislative priorities that included boosting both the minimum wage and stem cell research. Democrats also said they would pressure President Bush to bring the troops home from Iraq.

Reid, a soft-spoken but tough inside player — took the reins of the notoriously unwieldy Senate, hosting both Democrats and Republicans at a rare closed-door conference Thursday morning in the Old Senate Chamber. The aim was to set a bipartisan mood after years of political rancor.

The meeting, said top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, gave senators in both parties "a chance to express some of their quiet frustrations that we get past the level of partisanship that we've witnessed in recent years."

The Democratic-led Congress also opened a new chapter in the presidency of Bush, who faces divided government as he cements his legacy in his final two years in the White House.

Anti-abortion protesters greeted Pelosi, D-Calif., as she began the day at a prayer service at a Catholic church on Capitol Hill before being sworn in as speaker in the afternoon by Rep. John Dingell (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., the longest serving member of the House. Pelosi then was to address the House — and the nation — in a speech carried live on C-SPAN, which broadcasts all House proceedings, and on cable news networks.

Dingell administered the same oath to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., 12 years ago when Republicans seized the House after 40 years of Democratic control — and he's set to get back his gavel as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

House Democrats promised speedy passage of the first six bills on their agenda and a series of stiffer ethics rules.


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