Pelosi gets House down to business
WASHINGTON -- Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California took the oath of office Thursday as the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives, calling it a "historic moment for the Congress and for the women of this country" and "a mome...
WASHINGTON -- Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California took the oath of office Thursday as the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives, calling it a "historic moment for the Congress and for the women of this country" and "a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years."
As Democrats retook control of the House and Senate after a dozen years out of power, they moved immediately to pass lobbying and ethics reforms in the House and to establish their top 10 legislative goals in the Senate. Republicans in both chambers tried to walk a line between graciousness and pushing to hold Democrats to their pledges to include them as full partners in legislating.
Above all, the opening ceremonies of the 110th Congress were Pelosi's to relish.
Pelosi defeated Republican John Boehner of Ohio on a party-line vote, 233-202. She thanked her husband, Paul, and their five children "for giving me their love, support and the confidence to go from the kitchen to the Congress."
In a well-received speech before handing over the gavel to Pelosi, Boehner, the House Republican leader, praised the election of the first female speaker, saying, "Whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, today is a cause for celebration."
He called for a respectful debate between the parties, telling Pelosi, "May the best idea win."
He also warned, "If there is one lesson that stands out from our party's time in the majority, it is this: A congressional majority is simply a means to an end. The value of a majority lies not in the chance to wield great power but in the chance to use limited power to do great things. The moment a majority forgets this lesson, it begins writing itself a ticket to minority status."
Boehner sat glum and unmoving in his seat for much of the hour it took to record the vote that put Pelosi in the speaker's chair. The former House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, now a rank-and-file member of Congress from Illinois, stood hunched and hulking by the back rail of the chamber.
Pelosi, grinning, waved the gavel, but said, "I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship."
"By electing me speaker," she told her colleagues, "you have brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America's heritage and hope. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling."
But there were signs, too, of divisions among Democrats over how hard to push to undo the fruits of 12 years of Republican rule in the Congress and six years under President Bush. Many Democrats feel those years have moved the nation too far to the right, but others argue that the big tax cuts and regulatory relaxations are part of the permanent legislative framework that should be accepted.
And after the obligatory promise of partnership with Republicans, she immediately added a blunt warning to Bush on the war in Iraq.
"The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end," she said, bringing Democrats to their feet in a standing ovation. She then signaled to the president that any plan to increase the U.S. military presence in Iraq would be met with stiff opposition by the new majority in Congress.
"It is the responsibility of the president to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security," she said, "a plan that promotes stability in the region and a plan that allows us to responsibly redeploy our troops."
After the ceremonies, House members moved to begin voting on an ethics package that's meant to correct some of the excesses of the previous Congress, including scandals that led to the prosecutions of at least two congressmen and of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The House passed the first portion of that package overwhelmingly Thursday night, 430-1, with Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the only opponent. It largely would ban meals, gifts and travel from lobbyists. It also would ban members from taking free rides on corporate jets. A second portion of the package, which would require lawmakers to identify which "earmark" spending projects they request and to curb deficit spending, is to be voted on today.
House Democrats have an ambitious agenda for the next few weeks. They have pledged to pass bills to raise the minimum wage, expand the opportunity for federally funded stem cell research, make Medicare prescription drugs cheaper, reduce the cost of student loans, implement anti-terrorism measures and reduce tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry -- all before Bush goes to the Capitol on Jan. 23 for his State of the Union address.
At least one measure -- the stem cell legislation -- faces a veto threat. Republicans also have hinted Bush would reject a measure that orders the administration to muscle drug companies into lowering their prices for prescriptions filled under Medicare.
The Senate's opening was more low-key, but symbolically positive. Before being sworn in, members of both parties held an unofficial joint caucus in the old Senate chamber and came out of the historic room pledging to work in a bipartisan manner.
"I know that you're not accustomed, members of the press, to people getting along, working together, but Senator McConnell and I believe that this is a new day in Washington," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiling by his side.
After the swearing-in ceremonies, Reid introduced the Democrats' first 10 bills for the 110th Congress. Overhauling Congress' ethics system topped the agenda, followed by raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.
The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.