Democrats take control

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Returning to power for the first time in 12 years, House Democrats elected Nancy Pelosi as the first female speaker yesterday and moved swiftly to adopt rules to rein in the influence of lobbyists.

Pelosi, also the first Californian to lead the House, and new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, put President Bush on notice that they intend to press for a new U.S. policy on Iraq.

"The election of 2006 was a call to change - not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country," Pelosi said. "Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in the war in Iraq."

Leaders of both parties pledged to promote a spirit of bipartisanship. But a partisan fight broke out in the House within hours as Republicans complained about how the Democrats pushed through new ethics rules.

The rules for the first time will ban lobbyist-paid gifts and meals, and prohibit House members from flying on corporate jets. The Senate is expected to take up its own new ethics rules next week.

Pelosi's election as the first female speaker generated the most excitement on the opening day of the 110th Congress, with lawmakers bringing children and grandchildren to the chamber to witness history. Pelosi, who brought her six grandchildren, was elected on a party-line vote of 233-202 in a roll call that featured some brief, flowery tributes from Democratic colleagues who took note of the milestone.

"It's an historic moment for the Congress. It's an historic moment for the women of America," said Pelosi, who is second in the line of succession to the president, behind the vice president. "It is a moment for which we have waited over 200 years."

It was her coming-out to the nation, and Pelosi, 66, sought to introduce herself not only as the San Francisco liberal decried by Republicans, but also as Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi, Italian-American Catholic, mother of five and native of Baltimore, where her father was mayor.

She arrived on the House floor yesterday with all six of her grandchildren in tow, including baby Paul Michael Vos, born to her daughter Alexandra in November.

"I was raised in a large family that was devoutly Catholic, deeply patriotic, proud of our Italian-American heritage and staunchly Democratic," Pelosi said. "My parents taught us that public service was a noble calling."

After her election by a vote of 233-202, the chamber's Democratic-Republican breakdown, a beaming Pelosi stood holding her sleeping infant grandson - who did not stir - and shook hands as she accepted congratulations from her fellow House members.

Minutes later, cheers erupted in the chamber as House Republican leader John A. Boehner handed her the speaker's gavel. Pelosi always has said she wants to be judged by her abilities, not her gender, but she happily acknowledged the importance of her achievement.

Everywhere Pelosi went yesterday, supporters, especially other women, marveled at her achievement.

Outside the Library of Congress, leaders from the National Organization for Women greeted her with a giant congratulations card. The message: "Way to Go!"

Yesterday evening, Pelosi was honored at a $1,000-a-head gala hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the National Building Museum. Among the performers were Carole King, Wyclef Jean and Tony Bennett, who sang his signature "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

"Democrats are back, and that is cause for celebration," Pelosi told the crowd. "Thanks to you, working moms in this country know there's a mom in the speaker's office who understands their challenges."

Today begins with an open-house event across from the Capitol. Then she heads to Baltimore, where part of Albemarle Street, where she grew up in Little Italy, is being dedicated in her honor: Via Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi.

Pelosi was raised there, the daughter of New Deal Maryland Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro, who later became the city's mayor. She didn't run for the House until 1987 after marrying Paul Pelosi, a wealthy businessman, moving to San Francisco and raising her children.

In Congress Pelosi displayed the tough politicking of her childhood environment. She wrung loyalties, counted votes and muscled aside Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland to become the Democrats' second in command, and then Democratic leader in 2002.

The shift in power was apparent in the faces of House members. Democrats were all smiles, while Republicans appeared glum.

But Republicans joined Democrats in recognizing Pelosi's feat.

"Whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, today is a cause for celebration," said Boehner, of Ohio, who offered the traditional introduction before handing the gavel to Pelosi.

After swearing in the representatives, including 55 new members, House Democrats turned to ethics reform, an issue they chose to highlight after a spate of scandals in the Republican-controlled Congress contributed to their majorities in the House and Senate.

Republicans objected that Democrats were muscling through the rules without giving the minority an opportunity to shape the legislation, a complaint that Democrats often made when Republicans were power.

Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, called the majority's refusal to consider Republican amendments a "poor start" for the new Congress.

In the end, however, Republicans joined Democrats in a 430-1 vote to support the new rules, with only Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, opposed.

The new rules also prohibit representatives from bullying lobbying firms to hire employees of their party affiliation. The rule is a reaction to the so-called K Street Project, an initiative of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay a Texas Republican, which sought to pressure lobbying firms to hire Republicans and contribute to GOP candidates.

Next week, Democrats plan to pass bills to increase the minimum wage, implement the 9/11 commission's recommendations, ease restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research and authorize negotiations for lower drug prices under Medicare.

In the Senate, Democrats, who hold a tenuous 51-49 majority, sought to promote bipartisan goodwill but also set an ambitious agenda, including immigration reform and expanded stem-cell research, and issued a warning that they expect the administration to make significant changes in Iraq.

Unlike the House, however, the Senate did not start work on legislation. In a festive atmosphere, Vice President Dick Cheney swore in 33 senators, including 10 new ones.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota remained in the hospital less than three miles from the Capitol, recovering from brain surgery, underscoring the fragility of the Democrats' Senate majority.

Cheers and laughter greeted 89-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, as he boisterously responded to the call to take his oath and shuffled up supported by two canes, with Reid and McConnell at each elbow.

When he was done, Byrd shakily pumped a fist and let loose a yell: "Yay, God!"

Richard Simon and Nicole Gaouette write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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