Touch of drama follows new Senate

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - As the new Senate opened for business yesterday, it offered more story lines than a nightly telenovela.

In one corner stood Sen. Joe Biden, who soon will resign his Senate seat to assume the vice presidency. Not far away sat Sen. John McCain, who lost to Biden and the man at the top of the ticket, President-elect and former Sen. Barack Obama.

On the other side of the room sat Sen. Hillary Clinton, vanquished by Obama in the Democratic primaries but now likely to leave the Senate soon to serve as his secretary of state. Close by sat Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, almost tossed out of the Democratic caucus for his support of McCain.

If that wasn't enough, outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney presided over the opening session. He administered the oath of office for Biden.

But the drama inside the chamber was matched by events beyond it. Earlier in the day, Illinois' Roland Burris attempted to gain admittance to the Senate, but was turned away because of faulty paperwork - his own state's secretary of state refusing to certify the governor's appointment of Obama's replacement.

And while Senate Democrats have proclaimed political comedian Al Franken winner of a Senate seat in Minnesota in his extended battle with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, they won't admit Franken until he, too, has a better legal claim on the post. He has won by a disputed 225 votes. Coleman said yesterday that he is suing to challenge Franken's apparent recount victory.

If Franken holds on, Democrats will have taken eight Senate seats away from Republicans, creating a commanding majority. This will increase pressure to deliver on legislation, something that became nearly impossible in the last Congress.

Both "parties learned an important lesson over the past two years," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said yesterday. "When we allow ourselves to retreat into the tired, well-worn trenches of partisanship, when we fail to reach for common ground, when we are unable, in the words of President-elect Obama, to disagree without being disagreeable, we diminish our ability to accomplish real change."

The new Senate is far from settled in place.

New York's Senate seat will open up once Clinton resigns. Caroline Kennedy, niece of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is a leading contender. If she isn't appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson, it could fall to another child of a famous political family, the state's attorney general, Andrew Cuomo.

The presence of Ted Kennedy was a vivid reminder that generational change has come to the body. While stalwarts such as West Virginia's Robert C. Byrd remain, longtime veterans such as Virginia's John W. Warner and Alaska's Ted Stevens have departed. The Republican Warner spent the morning introducing his namesake and replacement, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, around the chamber.

Another notable newcomer: Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who handed a surprise defeat to a Republican name brand, Elizabeth Dole.

Change also will be felt in several key committees. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, takes over Intelligence, and already has been vocal about her displeasure at not being consulted on the nomination of Leon Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But the most important women in the Senate may be Republicans Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. They're part of a small bloc of moderates who could help or hinder the Obama agenda.

Because Democrats failed to attain a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority, they'll have to work to prevent votes on controversial issues from running along party lines.

The most powerful woman in Washington, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, was re-elected as speaker yesterday. After the vote, Pelosi and House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio offered conciliatory words in keeping with Obama's promise to transcend partisan bickering.

"Obama has expressed a desire to govern from the center," Boehner said. "When our president extends his hand across the aisle to do what's right for the country, Republicans will extend ours in return."

Pelosi emphasized the need to act quickly on economic and other issues.

In contrast to the stately formality of the Senate's opening ceremony, the House lived up to its role as the more populist chamber. The House floor teemed with children and grandchildren dressed in their Sunday best, while lawmakers greeted each other with hugs and backslapping camaraderie.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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