WASHINGTON House and Senate leaders marked the first day of the 111th Congress by preaching bipartisanship Tuesday and promising to start work quickly on President-elect Barack Obama's economic proposals and issues ranging from climate change to health care.
Oaths of office were administered, anti-war protesters staged demonstrations and lobbyists cruised through a series of receptions to celebrate the day. More than a few new members said they were eager to get started.
"The overwhelming feeling is, let's get something done," said Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall, who was sworn in on a Bible he said belonged to his father, Morris, who was a congressman for 30 years.
Though Congress often delays substantive action until after the presidential inauguration which takes place Jan. 20 this year the economic crisis has prompted urgency. Obama met with leaders of both parties Monday to discuss a $775 billion recovery plan.
"This is the lesson and legacy of the last election: The American people demanded a new era of change and accountability," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was elected to a second term as speaker. "We need action and we need action now."
The economy is not the only item up for discussion. Congress may also move quickly on an expansion of a children's health insurance program and a bill that requires employers to pay equal compensation for women and men who perform similar work.
Senate committees, meanwhile, have started to schedule confirmation hearings on Obama's Cabinet nominees. That process will begin Thursday with Tom Daschle, Obama's choice for Health and Human Services secretary.
Democrats gained 21 seats in the House in the November election and could pick up as many as eight votes in the Senate, depending on the outcome of disputes in Minnesota and Illinois. In all, there are 63 new members of the House and Senate.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden was sworn into a seventh Senate term Tuesday, although he will vacate his Delaware seat later this month for his new job. Dozens waited to take pictures with Biden at a reception after his swearing in.
Mike Migliore, a former Biden aide who is now a corporate lawyer in Wilmington, was among those who made the trek from Delaware to see Biden. No matter his title, people "still will see him as their senator," Migliore said. "They love him."
Lobbyists also turned out for invitation-only parties to mark the new Congress. "It's good to be in the mix," said Emily Wilson, a lobbyist for the American Society for Radiation Oncology.
Wilson attended a reception for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who heads the Senate committee that oversees Medicare spending. Wilson's group is working to increase Medicare reimbursements to physicians.
Despite talk of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans found plenty to bicker about on the opening day. House Republicans criticized a new set of rules they say will make it harder for them to offer alternatives to Democratic legislation. The measure passed largely along party lines.
"At this time of economic anxiety, the American people deserve open debate and transparency in their Congress," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.1 comment on this story
Senate leaders also continued to argue over who won the Senate race in Minnesota, where a recount has been under way since shortly after the election. State election officials say Democrat Al Franken has 225 more votes out of more than 2.9 million cast but his Republican opponent, Sen. Norm Coleman, filed a lawsuit to challenge the results.
"I really think it's important for a six-year term to make sure that we get this right," Coleman said Tuesday. "Whoever wins this race needs to have the ... trust of the people that votes were counted fairly."
Burris denied Senate seat, but opposition is cracking
Roland Burris failed to capture Barack Obama's Senate seat Tuesday in a wild piece of political theater, but the Democrats' opposition cracked when a key chairwoman said seating him was simply the legal thing to do. Democratic leaders, set to meet with Burris on Wednesday, were searching for a way to defuse the dispute before it further overshadows the 111th Congress. Knowledgeable Senate officials of both parties widely predicted that the saga would end with Burris being seated. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has the power, under law, to make the appointment. Burris marched into the Capitol earlier Tuesday, declaring himself the junior senator from the state of Illinois. But Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson rejected his certification, saying it lacked Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's signature and the state seal.