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House, Senate convene for 111th Congress

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Capitol rang loud with vows to fix the crisis-ridden economy Tuesday as Congress opened for business at the dawn of a new Democratic era. "We need action and we need action now," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans agreed, and pledged cooperation in Congress as well as with President-elect Barack Obama — to a point.

On a day largely devoted to ceremony, new members of Congress and those newly re-elected swore to defend the Constitution. The Senate galleries were crowded; children and grandchildren of lawmakers squirmed in their seats in the House chamber as the winners in last fall's elections claimed their prizes.

One office-seeker was not among them.

In a scripted bit of political theater, Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois was informed he would not be seated because his paperwork was not in order. He pledged a lawsuit, the latest twist in a political drama that began when he was named to Obama's Senate seat by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been charged with having attempted to sell the appointment.

Obama was across town in a meeting with his economic advisers as the opening gavels fell in the House and Senate at noon. His inauguration as the nation's first black president is two weeks away.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a veteran of numerous battles with President George W. Bush, made plain how glad he was the old administration was winding down.

"We are ready to answer the call of the American people by putting the past eight years behind us and delivering the change that our country desperately needs," he said on the Senate floor. We are grateful to begin anew with a far more robust Democratic majority."

At the same time, in comments directed at Republicans, he said, "we are in this together" when it comes to the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care and the country's energy needs.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, replied in a speech of his own, saying, "The opportunities for cooperation are numerous." He said Democrats should avoid a "reckless rush to meet an arbitrary deadline" to pass an economic stimulus bill that could reach $1 trillion, and he outlined possible changes in the approach Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders have been considering.

Among them was a proposal to cut taxes by 10 percent. Another was to lend money to hard-pressed state governments rather than give it to them. "States will be far less likely to spend it frivolously" in that case, he said.

By the new political calculus, McConnell will soon be the most powerful Republican in government after elections that handed Democrats the White House and left them with gains of least seven seats in the Senate and 21 in the House.

McConnell's counterpart in the House, Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, handed the speaker's gavel to Pelosi in a traditional unity tableau. He, too, pledged cooperation, then said, "America's potential is unlimited. But government's potential is not. We must not confuse the two."

Obama spent much of Monday in the Capitol, conferring with Republicans and Democrats alike on the economic stimulus measure he hopes to sign early in his term. The nation's consumer spending has plummeted, manufacturing has withered and job losses have grown in recent months, adding urgency to the legislative effort in contrast to the customary sluggish start to a new Congress.

Strikingly, the war in Iraq drew scant mention during the day, a contrast to the weeks of debates that Democrats once had forced to try and maneuver Bush into withdrawing American forces.

Reid mentioned the fighting in passing when he noted the country was fighting two wars overseas, a reference to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pelosi was even more indirect, saying, "We cannot afford to wait to modernize and rebuild our military."

Like Reid, she focused her remarks on domestic issues, the economy chief among them.

"We need action and we need action now," she said again and again, calling for help for "hardworking and still hopeful Americans" bearing the brunt of the economic crisis, for the states struggling to provide services, for families without health care, for a climate crisis and for energy needs.

Speechmaking and celebrations aside, House Democrats pushed through a series of rule changes, including one that calls for greater disclosure of earmarks.

They also repealed the six-year term limit for committee chairman. It was a legacy of the Republican Revolution that swept through Congress in 1994, and in erasing it Democrats evinced confidence in the strength of their majority status.

In all, 34 senators were sworn it, and apart from the controversy involving Burris, one other Senate seat was in limbo.

Democrat Al Franken holds a 225-vote lead over former Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, a result certified on Monday by the state Canvassing Board. He has not yet received a certificate of election, and with Republicans threatening to protest, Democrats made no attempt to seat him.

Inevitably, it was a day for personal transitions.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware took the oath of office for a seventh time for a seat he has held for more than 30 years and will soon relinquish to become Obama's vice president.

Anh "Joseph" Cao, who arrived in the United States as an 8-year-old war refugee, was sworn in as the nation's first Vietnamese-American lawmaker. He's a Louisiana Republican.

Across the Capitol in mid-afternoon, the chamber nearly deserted, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, 91, spoke about his 50 years in the Senate.

"I look forward — yes, look forward — to the next 50 years," he said.

He spoke from a wheelchair, his hair white, his voice often faltering.