- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

The 109th Congress convened yesterday with Republican leaders in both the House and Senate calling the next two years an unsurpassed opportunity to pass a complete package of reforms, including overhauls of Social Security and the tort system.

And while House Republicans and Democrats sparred over the rules governing the chamber’s operations this Congress, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist warned his Democratic colleagues he will give them one last chance to drop filibusters of judicial nominations next month.

If they do not, he said, he will move to change the filibuster rule.

“If my Democratic colleagues continue to filibuster judicial nominees, the Senate will face this choice: fail to do its constitutional duty or reform itself, restore its traditions, and do what the Framers intended,” the Tennessee Republican said.

“Right now, we cannot be certain judicial filibusters will cease. So I reserve the right to propose changes to Senate Rule 22 and do not acquiesce to carrying over all the rules from the last Congress,” he said.

Addressing their respective chambers, Mr. Frist and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, set out a long list of proposed legislation, with Mr. Hastert promising: “The 109th Congress will be a reform Congress.”

“We have big challenges that face this country, and we need big ideas to meet those challenges,” he said. “Today, we must seize the initiative. Today, we must start anew the process of reforming the government. Security and prosperity only come with hard work and responsible government.”

In addition to Social Security and tort reform, he called for further border security and immigration controls and changes to the tax code.

Mr. Frist did not mention tax simplification or immigration, but said his top priority when Congress returns after the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration will be tort reform, while Democrats said they would prefer to work first on the highway bill stalled since last year.

The bulk of the session yesterday was spent swearing in those who won in the 2004 elections — 34 senators and all House members, including nine freshmen in the Senate, 38 freshmen in the House and three former House members who return to the chamber this year.

Mr. Hastert was officially sworn in as speaker of the House for the fourth time, after each House member ceremonially rose and voiced a vote for either him or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

As Mrs. Pelosi handed Mr. Hastert the gavel, she joked it was becoming “tiresome” to do so, but also lavished compliments on him.

In the Senate, both parties will work on completing their legislative agendas at all-day retreats today, and both chambers return tomorrow to count the Electoral College votes for president.

“I think we will focus on honoring our heroes fighting overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing for their families, health care is always an issue, improving the job situation and education,” said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

In the Senate, Mr. Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, spoke of improved relations. But tort reform was a divisive issue between the parties last year, and Mr. Reid said he would prefer to deal with other legislative priorities first.

“I would be satisfied with [the highway bill] being done first, understanding that it would have to go through the legislative process in committee,” Mr. Reid said.

In the House, the early genial atmosphere quickly dissolved as members debated new rules.

Democrats accused Republicans of weakening the process for punishing unethical behavior, while Republicans said they simply are trying to protect members from those who would use the ethics process for political attacks.

Mrs. Pelosi called the changes “destructive” to the House.

“What could the Republicans be so afraid of that they would so fundamentally undermine the ethical process of the House?” she said.

The Republican-crafted rules package kills an ethics complaint unless the ethics committee chairman and ranking member, or a majority of the panel, agree within 45 days to let an investigation advance.

Currently, if the committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocks or no action is taken on a complaint within 45 days, the complaint is automatically investigated.

That was the hottest point of contention in the new rules package, which ultimately passed on a party-line vote, 220-195.

The rules also allow members to take along relatives other than spouses and children on official trips, and allow House members for the first time to refer to the Senate during official debate.

The package also establishes a permanent House Homeland Security Committee, although leaders had a challenge balancing the concerns of powerful chairmen who did not want to give up jurisdiction and members who wanted to ensure the new panel has real power.

The ethics issue dominated the House yesterday, especially because the chamber’s Republican leaders had wanted to make more changes to the ethics process but backed off late Monday night.

The original rules package was going to raise the standard of wrongdoing necessary to bring a complaint against a member, but Republicans dropped that provision in light of opposition from some of their own members.

“It was confusing to the members, and it wasn’t worth fighting over in the conference,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

“I was not comfortable with the ethics change. I was glad they pulled it,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Republican leaders backed off because if they hadn’t, their rules package would not have passed.

“Enough Republicans would have been opposed to it, and, in my judgment, 20, 25, maybe, and with us unanimous, they could not sustain their position,” he said. “It was a political judgment, not a philosophical, substantive, ethical judgment.”

Also Monday night, Republicans reversed a change they had made late last year to their caucus rules and reverted to their earlier rule that a party leader who is indicted must relinquish his post.

Last year, Republicans had changed the rule to let the Republican Steering Committee decide whether an indicted leader stays. A Texas prosecutor has indicted several of Mr. DeLay’s political allies on charges of illegal fund raising.

Mr. DeLay, who proposed changing the rules back on Monday night, said he did it to head off partisan Democratic attacks and to “empty their chamber of any bullets.”

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