With former Sen. Jesse Helms in his wheelchair on the Senate floor and Democratic activist Jesse Jackson looking down from the visitors’ gallery, with Vice President Cheney getting a chance to have brief reunion with Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the man he insulted last June on the Senate floor with a vulgar epithet, Tuesday’s opening of the new sessions of the Senate was a mellow festival of celebrity and nostalgia.
There will be time later for battles over President Bush's nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general, the redesign of Social Security and Supreme Court vacancies, but Tuesday was a day for emotion and tradition, the closest thing the Senate has to the first day of high school, a college commencement, and a family reunion rolled into one.
Twenty minutes before Cheney gaveled the proceeding to order at the stroke of noon, freshman Senator-elect David Vitter of Louisiana wandered around the Republican side of the Senate chamber with an aide trying to figure out which seat — at least temporarily — was his.
Looking up at visitors’ gallery Vitter staggered backward in a feigned reaction of surprise as he saw friends waving to him. A few minutes later, Helms was wheeled in to the chamber, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and other senators drifted over to say hello.
Cheney killed time in the minutes before the session opened by exchanging chatter on the floor with Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (like Cheney, a veteran of the Nixon administration), Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Larry Craig of Idaho and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
A prayer for 'tunnels of hope'
After Cheney opened the session, Senate chaplain Rev. Dr. Barry Black prayed for tsunami victims and asked God to help build “tunnels of hope through mountains of despair.”
Then in groups of four, senators, both the re-elected veterans and the freshmen members, came down the center aisle.
By tradition, as newly elected senators walk down the center aisle to the well of the Senate to take their oath, they are accompanied by the other senator of their home state, no matter what his or her party affiliation.
The custom is for the two senators to link arms, as an old married couple out on an evening walk might do. Six years ago, it was New Yorker Pat Moynihan linking arms with freshman Chuck Schumer. Tuesday the only pair to preserve the custom was the Connecticut duo, Joe Lieberman accompanying Chris Dodd, just elected to his fifth term and himself the son of former Sen. Thomas Dodd.
Freshman Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was accompanied not only by his state’s senior senator, Republican Jim Inhofe, but by former Sen. Don Nickles, who decided to retire last year and whose seat Coburn now holds.
Nickles, already well launched on a career as a lobbyist, took time to do some glad-handing and chatting up of Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who was appointed to and later won the seat held by his father, John Chafee.
Father on hand to witness
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, elected to a full term after being appointed to her seat by her father, ex-senator and now Gov. Frank Murkowski, was of course shepherded to the well by her dad, as well as by the senior Alaskan and the chambers' senior Republican, Ted Stevens, who has been a senator since 1968.
After Florida’s Mel Martinez took his oath, and took his seat, a group of House members from Florida trooped over to Martinez and embraced him. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, like Martinez, a Cuban émigré, emotionally kissed the first Cuban-American senator.
Over on the Democratic side of the chamber, once sworn in and back in his seat, a quietly ebullient Ken Salazar of Colorado, bursting with excitement, gave a thumbs up to someone in the visitors’ gallery.
His older brother John, elected to the House of Representatives the same day Ken won his Senate seat, was soon to take his oath on the south side of the Capitol. The brothers are sharing an apartment in northwest Washington. Will they argue over who's going to do the vacuuming and dusting? "No, I think it was over whose turn it is to do the dishes," joked Salazar's press secretary Cody Wertz.
With the swearing-in over, senators filed out of the chamber to rendezvous with their families and friends. Three of Sen. Arlen Specter’s granddaughter, all looking to be under age 10, clamored to be picked up by grandpa, who just won his fifth term. “I’m not allowed to wave,” Specter explained to one of the girls who’d asked why he hadn’t acknowledged her waves from the gallery.
Remembering the missing
Asked who he wished could have been in the chamber today but wasn’t, Vitter said, "My dad passed away about a year and a half ago from Parkinson’s after a long bout, but I know he is here today, from a much better vantage point.”
Martinez had exactly the same answer to that question: “My dad, I wish very much would be here. Sad to think that he’s not, but he is in spirit, I know.” He also mentioned a Roman Catholic priest from Miami, Monsignor Brian Walsh, who started the “Peter Pan” program in 1962 that brought Martinez to Florida from Cuba six months before the Cuba Missile Crisis.
Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, elected to a second term, and the only Southern Democrat to win a Senate seat on Nov. 2, said she too missed her father, who witnesses her first Senate swearing-in back in 1999, but died in 2001.
Lincoln said it wasn’t any less exciting to take the oath of office a second time than the first.
“Monumentally exciting,” she exclaimed, as she stood waiting for an elevator, with her eight-year old twin boys in tow. “When you raise your hand and you walk down to that well and you realize the commitment you’re making to the people of Arkansas and the people of the country, it’s extremely monumental.”