Reporter’s Notebook: A new day on the Hill

By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio and the Associated Press

Its a new day, and a new Congress on Capitol Hill. Today marks the opening session for both the House and the Senate in the 111th Congress. And for the day, at least, lawmakers are able to momentarily put aside politics and the process of legislating to savor the moment with friends and family.

As much as anything else, the mood of the Capitol on this first day, would be that of a church social, or a picnic, only the food is on china and eaten with silverware… and instead of shorts and flipflops, it’s suits, dresses and heels, as family members and friends proudly accompany famous lawmakers up to Capitol Hill to be part of history.

It’s tradition here on Capitol Hill, the hustle and bustle of the opening day of a new session of Congress. The first order of business is the swearing in of newly elected incoming, and returning Senators who have won re-election, gather in groups of four, raise their hands, and take an oath administered on the Senate Floor by Vice President Dick Cheney, in one of the last times that he will perform the ritual before leaving office on Inauguration Day. In a somewhat odd twist, one of those taking the oath for his seventh term is Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who also won re-election as the senior Senator from Delaware. Don’t worry, he’s expected to step down by Inauguration Day to take his new job.


Family, friends, and constituents will often watch from the packed visitors galleries, while others take in the moment on big screen televisions in the lawmaker in their Senate office. Several years ago, we followed the first day on the job for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who had a huge posse from the “show me state”, including sons and daughters, grandkids, people who had campaigned for her, and proud friends from back home. By all accounts at the time, she had at least 50 people to help shepherd around the Capitol on the day she was sworn in.

After the official swearing in on the Senate floor, the new and returning Senators either head back to their offices , or head to the old Senate chamber, located in the oldest part of the Capitol. There, with a little more space to play with, Vice Presiden Cheney will re-enact the swearing in, this time individually with the new lawmaker’s family and friends clustered around for photographers. In some cases, local television stations dispatch news crews to Washington just to capture this made for photos moment. After the cameras finish, the newly minted Senators and their families and friends pour into the hallway outside the Senate chamber, where reporters hover to get a word or two from the new lawmaker. With that in mind, we sidled over to talk to Senator Mary Landrieu, the returning Democrat from Louisiana, just moments after her family watched her get sworn in.

“I’m chairing the Senate Small Business Committee,” she said while strolling with her family to waiting Senate elevators. “I’m thrilled to be working with Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine) who is the ranking member. And I understand that we’ll be the first woman-team chairing a full committee in the history of the Congress, so we’re both very honored. We’re looking forward to being strong advocates for the millions of small businesses that make this country go. ”

Before ducking into a packed lift with her family, Landrieu also says one of her goals is to try and direct some of the forthcoming economic stimulus bill to the nation’s small businesses, which have been adversely affected by the economic downturn.

It should be noted here that Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois was not among the Senators sworn in today – the Senate secretary informed him that he would not be seated because his paperwork wasn’t in order. He pledged a lawsuit, the latest twist in a political drama that began when he was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with having attempted to sell the seat.

Across the Capitol, Lorraine Miller, clerk of the House, rapped the opening gavel, calling the House of Representatives to order around Noon, the prelude to a day of ceremony highlighted by Nancy Pelosi’s re-election as speaker. “We need action and we need action now,” she said minutes after taking the gavel, symbol of her authority. Its her second term as the Speaker. Just as in the Senate, Pelosi then spent much of the afternoon administering the oath of office individually to clusters of representatives before taking up the first legislation of the new term.

Rivals-turned-friends John Warner and Mark Warner shared a walk up the Senate aisle Tuesday in a ceremony that marked generational and political change for Virginia.

Mark Warner, 54, a Democrat, wanted Republican John Warner, 81, to accompany him as he was sworn in. The two men are not related, but share an affinity that goes beyond their common surname.

“John Warner epitomizes what it means to be a senator,” Mark Warner said in an interview after he took his oath. “He’s been a great friend of mine, and I was so proud to have him there.” Warner retired after a 30-year Senate career marked by bipartisanship. The younger Warner had mounted an unsuccessful challenge to the elder Warner in 1996, but they set that political history aside when Mark Warner became governor in 2002.

“I may be succeeding John Warner, but I’m not replacing him,” the younger Warner told several hundred people at a Capitol Hill reception later Tuesday. “He is irreplaceable.”

John Warner was greeted with a thunderous, sustained ovation when he took the podium at the reception. “You see, Mark,” John Warner cracked to laughter, “I should have run again.”

John Ullyot, a former senior aide to John Warner, said the two men shared “a very close personal chemistry” and often teamed up on issues such as funding for military and transportation infrastructure.

Lynn Jenkins, Kansas’ former state treasurer, entered the next chapter of her political career Tuesday when she was sworn in as the state’s only freshman in the new Congress.

Jenkins kept a serious face throughout much of the nearly two-hour ceremony that included the mass swearing-in of 434 members of the House. She stayed in her seat, chatting with other members seated nearby.

Jenkins, a Republican, ousted incumbent Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda in November in the 2nd Congressional District in eastern Kansas. She won that faceoff after defeating former Rep. Jim Ryun in the GOP primary.

She served two terms as state treasurer and also served in the Kansas House and Senate.

After years of working behind the scenes for U.S. senators, Pete Olson moved to the front and center as Texas’ newest member of Congress on Tuesday.

Olson, 46, was sworn in during a ceremony in which all members of the House took the oath. “It’s surreal,” Olson said after the ceremony, still carrying a Bible that he said his wife gave him during the campaign. “You have to make sacrifices during the campaign.”

Olson, who’s worked as an aide to Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Phil Gramm, said he was excited to see his name on the door to his office on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building.

“It’s a very humbling experience,” he said.

Olson is the only freshman in the 32-member Texas delegation in the U.S. House. While his arrival increases the number of Texas Republicans to 20, he’s joining Congress after a rough election year for the GOP.

Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, a former governor and U.S. agriculture secretary, brought keepsakes of his late parents to the Senate floor when he took the oath of office.

Johanns, a Republican who is Roman Catholic, brought a rosary that belonged to his mother, who died in 2002.

“Faith is very, very important and that was something my mother wanted me to have,” he said.

Johanns also carried his father’s wrist watch, given to him by his mother after his father died in 1996. His father, an Iowa dairy farmer, was always reliable and dependable, he said.

“It was just a good ol’ Timex – and that was dad,” Johanns said.

It seems like Jeanne Shaheen makes history nearly every time she wins political office.

Shaheen, the first woman elected governor of New Hampshire in 1996, became the first female U.S. senator from that state when she was sworn in on Tuesday.

Now the Democratic lawmaker is the first woman in U.S. history to be elected both governor and senator from a state, according to associate Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

Shaheen plays down the significance, saying she just wants to work hard for the people of New Hampshire.

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.

Associated Press Writers Fredrich Frommer, Suzanne Gamboa, Ken Thomas, Sam Hananel and David Espo contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2009 by and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)