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The Democrats who take over Congress today are promising to change the way business is done in Washington. And in hoping for change, they're a little like Republicans who took over in 1994, or Democrats who arrived in big numbers after Watergate in 1974, or many election winners before them. The first change comes today when Nancy Pelosi becomes the first woman elected speaker of the House. Another afforded change comes tomorrow. House Democrats plan to pass ethics and rules changes that they say will make Washington a different place.
That promise sent NPR's Andrea Seabrook out into the streets of Washington.
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ANDREA SEABROOK: I'm standing on Pennsylvania Avenue. This is the iconic Washington street that runs between the U.S. Capitol building and the White House. And I'm going to stop some people here today and ask them whether this place looks or feels different.
Mr. AHMIT SAN(ph): I'm Ahmit. My last name is San. Oh, yes, it's full of hope and innocence.
Mr. THOMAS E. BROWN(ph): My name is Thomas E. Brown, and I'm a native of Washington, D.C. There's hope. There's hope this time that it'll last a little longer before anything is discovered or turned over right now. They can get something done before we get indiscretions of that nature.
Ms. KIMBERLY KERNS(ph): My name is Kimberly Kerns. I think there's people who very much want it to be a different place, but I'm afraid that that's a tall order and old habits will kick in again very quickly.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President, Democracy 21): Fred Wertheimer. I'm from Washington and I work for Democracy 21.
SEABROOK: The ethics watchdog.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: Yes.
SEABROOK: What luck I have. OK, no, I invited you here. Tell me, what do you think of the Democrats' push for ethics and rules changes?
Mr. WERTHEIMER: It's not perfect. Nothing's ever perfect. But this is a strong package and it really will start the process of changing the way business is done in Washington and in Congress for the better.
SEABROOK: The woman who brings that change is California Democrat Nancy Pelosi. She spoke yesterday at a women's tea honoring Ann Richards, the late Texas governor.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): America's working women have friends in the capital of the United States.
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Rep. PELOSI: They have a friend and they have a mom in the speaker's office.
SEABROOK: Pelosi knows the media spotlight is a fickle thing, and so she's crafted an ambitious agenda for the first 100 hours of House floor action in the 110th Congress. The list includes raising the minimum wage, cutting student loan interest rates, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and funding stem-cell research. That's what's to come in the next couple of weeks. Today and tomorrow is all about ethics reform and, as Democrats say it, changing the tone in Washington.
Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): We're going to restore civility.
SEABROOK: New York's Louise Slaughter will take over the chair of the House Rules Committee today, and will bring the new ethics rules to the floor. She says Republicans are terrified they'll be treated like they treated Democrats.
Rep. SLAUGHTER: But we will not. We're going to treat them much better.
SEABROOK: At least they will after those first 100 hours, it seems. Until then, House Democrats aren't likely to allow Republicans many amendments on bills.
On the other side of the Capitol, and a bit out of the spotlight for the moment, the Senate opens its sessions today also. Democrats take over that chamber as well, though with only the merest sliver of a majority, and there's a chance they could even lose that with South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson still suffering the after effects of a brain hemorrhage. Still, soon-to-be Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada plans to bring up ethics and rule changes next week.
Back on Pennsylvania Avenue, Congressional watchdog Fred Wertheimer says the big picture of this ethics reform is to end what he calls the culture of entitlement.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: We have had over the years in Congress members come to believe that they were entitled to have their lifestyles paid for by others.
SEABROOK: Democrats and Republicans alike.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: Absolutely. And we have to end that culture of entitlement, and we're off to a good start with this ethics package. But it's only stage one; these are very tough battles.
SEABROOK: Wertheimer has seen a lot of those battles over the years, and he's always hopeful that this time we're on the doorstep of real change.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.
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