WASHINGTON – Democrats took charge of the 110th Congress Thursday in an emotional display of determination and gratitude as they elected the first woman speaker of the House in the history of the institution and pledged to strike a tone of civility and respect in both chambers.
“I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., taking the heavy wooden gavel from John Boehner, the Republican leader from Ohio.
The 2006 elections dramatically altered the balance of power in Washington, diminishing President Bush’s ability to influence legislation and providing Democrats with the ability to set the national agenda.
Democrats vowed to scrutinize Bush’s soon-to-be announced Iraq policy, as well as pass bills raising the minimum wage, expanding federally funded embryonic stem cell research and allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies about the price of drugs.
After convening, the House immediately adopted new rules Thursday tightening ethics guidelines by banning lobbyists from giving gifts, meals and tickets to members and their staffs. The rules would also prohibit lobbyists from paying for a lawmaker’s travel or providing flights on corporate jets. The measure passed 235-195.
But before turning to legislative matters, the House was enveloped in the centuries-old ceremony of choosing a new speaker and swearing in 435 newly elected members. For close to an hour, lawmakers rose one by one to cast their vote aloud for either Pelosi or Boehner, with Pelosi easily capturing 233 votes and the top post, which is second in line to the presidency.
“Women can do anything,” proclaimed Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., as she voted for Pelosi.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., invoked Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and even Jesus Christ as he added his name to the Pelosi tally. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a legend of the civil rights movement, observed that “the eyes of the nation are upon us.”
By contrast, Republicans sat quietly as they inexorably slid from power, with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., standing grimly at the rear of the chamber in an area normally reserved for lowly backbenchers.
The galleries of both the House and the Senate were packed with family members and celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton, actor Richard Gere and singers Tony Bennett and Carole King, who came to watch the ceremonies.
In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats started their day with a private meeting in the old Senate chamber, where they talked about the need to work together if they hoped to accomplish anything.
“I think it’s important to remember that some of the most significant achievements over the last 25 years have been during periods of divided government,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the new Republican leader, striking a hopeful note.
In particular, the Senate requires members of both parties to join forces to pass legislation because they must meet a threshold of 60 votes for anything that is the least bit controversial.
“The message wasn’t just to the Democrats in the last election, it was to the Republicans as well,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant majority leader. “People do want a change and the old way of doing things is just unacceptable. I think the Republicans understand that if they continue to play to a draw on issue after issue it won’t help them in the future.”
Still, Democrats won’t have much leverage in the Senate. Their caucus numbers just 51, including an independent, and one Democrat is still hospitalized following brain surgery.
Legislation will be far easier to pass in the House, where it takes just a simple majority to get anything done. On Friday, the House is expected to pass pay-as-you-go rules requiring Congress to finance all new spending initiatives in an effort to rein in the budget deficit and the growing national debt.
Much of Thursday’s events involved ceremony, but many lawmakers seemed overcome by the significance of electing the nation’s first woman as speaker of the House, describing it as a new chapter in American history.
Young children in their finest clothes swarmed around their parents and grandparents on the House floor. Pelosi, in particular, sat with her six grandchildren – including an infant grandson – as her colleagues cast their votes for speaker.
To her right sat Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the new Democratic Caucus chairman, along with his son and two daughters. As he nominated Pelosi for speaker, he described himself as a father of three young children, then turned to give Pelosi a high five.
Even Boehner, the Republican leader, seemed caught up in the history-making moment.
“Today marks an occasion I think the Founding Fathers would view approvingly,” said Boehner, just before handing Pelosi the gavel. “My fellow Americans: Whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent, this is a cause for celebration.”
For Pelosi, the day was for introducing herself to the nation. That she did, describing herself as the daughter of a Baltimore mayor, the devoutly Catholic offspring of Italian Americans, and the proud mother of five.
The freight of 200 plus years of history was not lost on Pelosi, either. “For our daughters and granddaughters, we have broken the marble ceiling,” she declared. “For our daughters and our granddaughters now, anything is possible.”
Still, Pelosi used the opportunity to stake out the Democrats’ approach to policy, not just to celebrate her victory.
“Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in Iraq,” she told the House. “The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end.
“Shortly, President Bush will address the nation on the subject of Iraq. 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, a plan that promotes stability in the region, and that allows us to responsibly redeploy American forces.”
Despite those pointed and partisan comments, Pelosi reminded lawmakers about the late President Gerald Ford, who served in the House at a time when Republicans and Democrats worked together.
“He healed the country when it needed healing,” she said, urging members to work together. “This is another time, another war, and another trial of our American will, imagination, and spirit. Let us honor his memory, not just in eulogy, but in dialogue and trust across the aisle.”