Amid Fanfare, 110th Congress Gets Under Way

The 110th Congress convenes with new leadership and a flurry of welcoming ceremonies. Democrats have the majority in the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years. And Rep. Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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House Democrats were in charge for less than a day when they voted on new ethics rules for themselves. All but one Republican approved the bipartisan measure. Nobody is expecting every issue to be handled that way in the new Congress, though as we are about to hear, lawmakers in both parties say they're trying.

NPR's Brian Naylor has seen many Congresses come and go, and he turns his eye on this one.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The first day of a new Congress is a little bit like the first day back at school. And at times yesterday the Capitol seemed like one as the children of lawmakers and their families filled the hallways on a day packed with ceremony and change. In the House, the new minority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, acknowledged the change about to occur.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): This is the people's House. This is the people's Congress. And most people in America don't care who controls it. What they want is a government that is limited, honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. And the moment a majority forgets this lesson, it begins writing itself a ticket to minority status.

NAYLOR: And then Boehner graciously initiated the moment Democrats had waited 12 years for.

Rep. BOEHNER: It's now my privilege to present the gavel of the United States House of Representatives to the first woman speaker in our history - the gentle lady from California, Nancy Pelosi.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NAYLOR: And Pelosi, beaming, took the ivory-covered gavel and held it over her head like a trophy.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship. And I….

NAYLOR: The 66-year-old Pelosi, now the highest-ranking elected woman in the country, said it was a historic day for America.

Rep. PELOSI: For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. PELOSI: For our daughters and our granddaughters, now, the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.

(Soundbite of applause)

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, across the Capitol, changes, though more subtle, were underway as well, as Vice President Cheney administered the oath of office to newly-elected senators.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that you will…

NAYLOR: Earlier, senators met behind closed doors in the Old Senate Chamber in a rare session aimed at relieving some of the partisanship in that body. Democrats hold just a two-vote edge, and one of those votes, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, is recovering from brain surgery, and is not expected back anytime soon.

The new majority leader, Harry Reid, acknowledged Democrats and Republicans will need to work together to get anything done.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We've found that a one-party town simply doesn't work. We know from experience that majorities come and they go. Majorities are very fragile. And majorities must work with minorities to make that lasting change.

NAYLOR: It will be some weeks before the Senate tests Reid's spirit of cooperation. The House immediately got down to work, overwhelmingly approving a package of ethics rules changes that bar lawmakers from accepting gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists.

But by and large, it was a day for ceremony. Speaker Pelosi officiated over dozens of mock swearing-ins, as lawmakers posed with her for the newspapers and TV stations back home. None of those were more fraught with meaning or better-attended than that for Keith Ellison, the newly-elected Democrat from Minnesota and the first Muslim member of Congress, who posed with his hand on the Koran - one that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

(Soundbite of many people speaking)

NAYLOR: It was a moment to savor for Ellison, and a day that Pelosi and the Democrats will not soon forget.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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