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Congress opens to pomp, promises

Majority Republicans flexed their muscles at the dawn of a new Congress on Tuesday, approving ethics standards opposed by House Democrats and threatening to change Senate rules if needed to force votes on the president's court appointees.

"In this Congress, big plans will stir men's blood," pledged Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, re-elected speaker. He vowed to spend the next two years pursuing key elements of Bush's ambitious second-term agenda.

He mentioned Social Security, including Bush's call to allow individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes on their own, as well as energy and transportation bills and a measure to crack down on lawsuits.

Hastert will preside over a House majority bigger by three as a result of the Nov. 2 elections. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee leads a group of 55 Republicans _ four more than the GOP had in the old Congress.

The opening gavels fell at noon _ the hour commanded by the Constitution _ for a day of pomp and controversy.

Hastert administered the oath of office to 41 new House members as well as the veterans. Across the Capitol, Vice President Dick Cheney swore in the 34 senators elected on Nov. 2.

House Democrats criticized the GOP ethics rules in the first partisan fight of the Congress, but Republicans prevailed on a vote of 220-195.

Democratic prospects in the dispute diminished markedly after a series of concessions blessed by Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Monday night.

Specifically, the Democrats focused fire on a proposal to require a majority vote of the ethics panel for any complaint to be pursued. Membership of the panel consists of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, meaning that lawmakers of either party could unify and block action.

Former rules provided for an automatic investigation of a complaint unless the full committee decides on an alternative approach. That procedure, in effect since 1997, replaced a different requirement for a majority vote that had been in effect for many years.

In the House, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. who was chairman of the ethics committee last year, said he had concerns about the ethics changes but intended to support them nonetheless. That was not the case, he said, until GOP leaders agreed to modifications.


The visitor galleries were crowded in both the House and Senate as the opening gavels fell at noon. Children squirmed in grown-up-sized seats on the House floor as moms, dads and grandparents took the oath of office.

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Vice President Dick Cheney sat in the Senate president's chair, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called for a moment of silence for the Asian tsunami victims before the swearing-in of all newly elected senators.

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Among those taking the oath was Sen. Pat Leahy, a frequent critic of the vice president. Last summer Cheney cursed the Vermont Democrat while senators were having their annual group picture taken in the Capitol. This time they politely shook hands.

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Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., became the country's sole black senator and only the fifth in history. Family members traveled from as far as Kenya. Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of a black economist from Kenya and a white teacher from Kansas.

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Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar beamed with pride before the swearing-in ceremony. The Texas congressman is the son of migrant farm workers. His parents, Martin and Odilia, were in the gallery. "They don't know English, but they are going to understand everything from the heart," he said.

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Tinkering with a tradition that goes back to Thomas Jefferson, House members in the new Congress will be able to refer to senators by name on the floor. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, added the measure to a package of rule changes the House approved on opening day. Feeney's provision stipulates that, while members will now be able to refer to the Senate or a senator's action, they are still prohibited from personal attacks.