- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

The 108th Congress opened yesterday with Republicans controlling both chambers, and they immediately flexed their legislative muscle to pass an unemployment benefits package in the Senate.
With 51 senators a net addition of two the Republican majority was able to bring to the floor its version of a bill to extend existing unemployment benefits for 13 weeks.
Democrats protested but didn't have the votes to pass their own plan to nearly double the scope of the program. They relented rather than forcing a stalemate, and the Republicans' version passed without dissent.
In order to keep the benefit checks flowing, a bill must pass in Congress and be signed by the president by tomorrow. Republicans said the House never would accept the Democrats' larger program.
"We will not pass and they will not concur with a doubling," said Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican.
House Republicans said they will pass the Senate bill today to have it on the president's desk tomorrow.
Republicans' next test for the president's agenda could come on the nominations front.
President Bush yesterday resubmitted several nominations that were blocked by the Democrat-controlled Judiciary Committee last year, including those for U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Richman Owen. Mr. Bush wants both of them elevated to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Mr. Bush also resubmitted the nomination of Miguel A. Estrada for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Republicans reclaimed control of both chambers for the first time since June 2001, when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent and threw control of the Senate to Democrats.
November's elections returned control to Republicans. Yesterday, Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, became majority leader and the point man for the White House agenda.
In his first floor speech as Senate majority leader, Mr. Frist promised to try to work with Democrats.
"It is my hope in this Congress that we will be defined by achievement as well as a cooperative spirit," he said. "I look forward to working with our colleagues, both on our side of the aisle and the other side of the aisle."
Sen. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, fell from majority to minority leader but said his party was newly invigorated as the opposition. He announced a package of bills that Democrats were planning to pursue, including legislation to increase the minimum wage, crack down on hate crimes and provide a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients.
In the House, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, was elected to his third term as speaker with the support of 228 Republicans. As is the custom, Mr. Hastert voted "present."
Not all 205 Democrats supported Nancy Pelosi of California, who as their party's leader was also their candidate for speaker. Three Democrats Reps. Ralph M. Hall and Charles W. Stenholm of Texas and Ken Lucas of Kentucky voted "present," while Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi voted for Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat.
The House has 55 new members, and the Senate has 11.
Among the new senators are former presidential candidates Elizabeth H. Dole, North Carolina Republican, and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and a former senator, Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat.
House members could invite family on the floor, and dozens of children filled House seats for the opening ceremonies. In the Senate, floor privileges are more closely guarded, though former senators such as Bob Dole, Mrs. Dole's husband, are allowed.
"He's handling this role reversal very well. I think he's enjoying it very much, and so am I," Mrs. Dole told reporters.
It was the first Congress sworn in after September 11, and Mr. Hastert reminded his fellow members of the responsibilities and risks stemming from the terrorist attacks. He recalled the fourth hijacked plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on its way to Washington. "We sit in this chamber knowing it may very well have been the target of that ill-fated flight," Mr. Hastert said.
He said Congress would keep its commitment to the president to protect the nation. "We are determined it shall never happen here again," he said.
The 108th Congress is the first to have a woman, Mrs. Pelosi, as a party leader. Mrs. Pelosi and several of her colleagues noted that her position as minority leader would put her in line to become the first female speaker of the House if Democrats won control in 2004.
Vice President Richard B. Cheney conducted the official swearing-in of the 35 new or re-elected senators, and his presence led to heightened security.
A guard stopped Sen. James M. Talent, Missouri Republican, who was not wearing his member's pin. The guard let him proceed to the floor only after he explained that he was a new senator.
Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the senior Republican in the Senate, became the president pro tem, third in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and speaker of the House.
While the Senate was working on the unemployment package, the House was constructing its rules for the new Congress and passed on a party-line vote the Republicans' set of rules creating a new select committee to handle Department of Homeland Security issues.
"This select committee will be our eyes and ears as this critical department is organized," Mr. Hastert said.
Democrats said some of the other rule changes serve only to consolidate the Republican majority's power and let them duck tough decisions such as a stand-alone vote on increasing the nation's debt capacity.
"An increase in the debt limit should require action by Congress and the president," said Rep. Dennis Moore, Kansas Democrat.
Another rules change abolishes the eight-year limit on the speaker of the House.

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