Feinstein backs Burris as busy Congress begins

The 111th Congress opened Tuesday to a raucous start on a day typically reserved for ceremony, as Democrats dealt with an embarrassing sideshow over President-elect Barack Obama’s replacement in the Senate and pushed through rules changes to limit minority Republicans’ ability to influence legislation.

Even as Democrats celebrated expanded majorities in both houses, they were forced to block the Senate appointment of Roland W. Burris by scandal-plagued Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, citing his failure to provide proper credentials.

Mr. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, beat a quick retreat rather than enflame controversy, and later received an endorsement from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and the outgoing chairman of the rules committee that will possibly decide his fate.

Mrs. Feinstein said Mr. Blagojevich has the right to appoint Mr. Burris, even though Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to sign off on Mr. Burris.

“If you don’t seat Mr. Burris, it has ramifications for gubernatorial appointments all over America,” said Mrs. Feinstein, the incoming Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. She said Mr. Obama has apologized for failing to notify her ahead of time of his selection of Leon Panetta for CIA director.

Mr. Burris remained defiant that his appointment was constitutional and said he was prepared to keep fighting for the Senate seat - in court if necessary.

In the House, angry Republicans objected to new rules forced through by Democrats that they say undermine their rights as the minority party to challenge legislation.

“So much for the Obama vision,” said Rep. David Dreier of California, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, referring to the president-elect’s promise to operate in a bipartisan manner. “This is change that denies hopes.”

House Democrats said the changes were needed to end what they said was an “abuse” of the previous rules by the minority to torpedo legislation.

The most contentious rule change places new restrictions on motions to “recommit” a bill for new amendments to the committee that approved it. In practice, that motion often meant a lengthy or even permanent delay in passing the measure. Motions to recommit would still be possible, but the new rules allow the full House to reconsider the bill almost instantaneously.

The controversies came amid the traditional pomp of the opening day of a two-year congressional session.

“This session of Congress begins at a trying moment in our history, and when it is over, I believe that it will be recognized as one of the most challenging and pivotal in memory,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

“But we are also full of confidence and hope for a new year - that we will work together in a bipartisan manner to meet the challenges we face.”

Congress often recesses after the opening day until the new president takes office or after the State of the Union address at the end of January. This year, however, with the economy worsening, Democrats are promising swift action on an almost $800 billion economic recovery proposal that promises to be one of the most expensive spending packages in history. The as-yet unveiled package, which is a top priority of the Obama administration, has received tentative support from Republican leaders.

Capitol Hill lawmakers say they expect to pass the plan within six weeks, though details of the stimulus were still being worked out.

Party tensions were briefly cast aside during the official afternoon swearing-in ceremonies, where smiles, applause and handshakes were the order of the day.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, walked alongside former Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democrat he unseated in 2004. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, watched a portion of the event from a seat in the Republican side of the aisle so he could chat with Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and retiring Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who as Senate president administered the oath of office to senators in groups of four, shook hands with Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who once described him as “the most dangerous vice president in history.”

Newly minted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said the euphoria of her first day on the job was tempered by the feeling of incredible responsibility that all senators face.

“It’s a celebratory but also a solemn occasion,” said the former governor, who defeated former Sen. John E. Sununu in the Nov. 4 election. “We are faced with tremendous challenges in this country, and I’m excited about having this opportunity at this historic time.”

Fellow freshman Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, said the swearing-in ceremony left him “quivering.”

“I was holding on to my cousin Tom for dear life, and he was to me,” said Mr. Udall, referring to Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, who also was sworn in to the Senate for the first time Tuesday.

Former Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who retired last week after serving six terms, made what could be his final appearance on the chamber floor when he escorted Mr. Udall of New Mexico and Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, to be sworn in.

“It’s not so good to think about doing this very often,” said Mr. Domenici, who said he doesn’t expect to visit the Capitol much in the future. “You can’t keep reminding yourself of being a senator. You’ve got to get out of it.”

In the House, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi was sworn in for a second term as speaker after a rare roll-call vote of the full 435-member chamber. Dozens of children and grandchildren of members were on the floor as the new House was sworn in.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal for the Roman Catholic diocese of Washington, offered a prayer for the new Congress to open the House session.

Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and the House’s most senior member, administered the oath to Mrs. Pelosi, who invited the children to the speaker’s rostrum as she took the oath.

Both she and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, promised to pursue a spirit of bipartisanship in the new Congress as they tackle an ambitious agenda laid out by Mr. Obama.

“If Barack Obama extends his hand across the aisle, Republicans will extend ours in return,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mrs. Pelosi said it was “time to join hands, not point fingers,” but said she was determined to move on issues such as aid to the economy, health and education.

“We need action and we need action now,” she said repeatedly.

cKara Rowland and David R. Sands contributed to this article.

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus