A Little Pomp, a Little Work on Opening Day

Times Staff Writer

As triumphant Republicans opened the GOP-controlled Congress on Tuesday, the party's new Senate leader made his debut and immediately muscled through long-delayed legislation to extend unemployment benefits.

Senate approval of the bill marked a quick victory for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), selected for his post under controversial circumstances late last month, and it broke a stubborn impasse on an issue that stymied Congress last year.

The bill, which would provide 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits, is expected to clear the House today and be signed into law by President Bush before the end of the week.

Republicans said the breakthrough on the first day of the 108th Congress vindicated their 2002 campaign theme that GOP control of the House and Senate would make Congress more effective and productive.

"The message of this campaign was: Get it done," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of 11 new senators sworn in Tuesday. "If we do less bickering and more problem solving, people will appreciate it."

But the unusually prompt action in the Senate -- on a day usually given over to the pomp and ceremony of new lawmakers officially taking their seats -- was not without its partisan tensions.

Democrats blindsided Frist by objecting to the unemployment legislation, which would extend a program that lapsed in late December. The Democrats said it did not go far enough. They eventually relented, however, and let it pass.

The byplay provided a window into the political dynamics likely to shape this session. The tenuous Republican majority in both chambers has the power to drive its agenda through Congress, but it will face a more aggressive opposition from Democrats still nursing the wounds of a fall election in which they lost their Senate majority. They also lost seats in the House, which the GOP has controlled since 1995.

But for at least part of opening day, leaders of both parties struck a conciliatory note.

"We are on different sides of the aisle, but we have a shared oath and a greater obligation to serve our country together -- both to find common ground wherever we can, and to stand our ground wherever we must to be true to the people we represent," said new House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Pelosi made history as the first woman to serve as a party's congressional leader.

Frist, in his first floor speech as Senate majority leader, said: "My hope is that, in this Congress, we will be defined by achievement as well as by the cooperative spirit."

The new Senate has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who generally sides with the Democrats. The House breakdown is 229 Republicans, 205 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

The House swearing-in ceremony was a family affair, with many of the veteran members and 54 newcomers bringing children and grandchildren with them on the House floor.

In the House's first major act, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was reelected as speaker, defeating Pelosi, 228 to 201.

As expected, all the GOP members backed Hastert, who abstained from voting. But among Democrats, the vote offered a reminder of concerns expressed about Pelosi by some party members when she was picked to succeed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri as minority leader shortly after the November election. Three conservative Democrats -- Reps. Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Ralph M. Hall and Charles W. Stenholm of Texas -- voted "present" rather than support Pelosi, whom they consider too liberal. Another Democrat, Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, voted for Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for speaker.

In the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney made a rare appearance to preside over the swearing-in ceremony.

Among the many Senate alumni attending were two who came to see their offspring sworn in: David Pryor accompanied his son, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski escorted his daughter Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whom he appointed to fill his seat after winning his new office in November.

Among the Senate rookies were many old political hands, including two former presidential candidates, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-N.C.). Escorting Dole to the podium to take the oath of office was her husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.

While the freshmen settled into their new jobs, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of his congressional career.

With Republicans in control, Byrd loses the post of Senate president pro tem, a ceremonial leadership position that goes to the senior member of the majority party. He is succeeded by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who becomes third in the line of presidential succession, after Cheney and Hastert.

Throughout the pageantry, much attention was focused on Frist, who became Senate majority leader unexpectedly after Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) resigned the post. Lott had come under fire for comments he made last month that seemed sympathetic to racial segregation.

Frist, who lacked experience as a legislative leader, has been lying low in the two weeks since his GOP colleagues picked him for the top Senate job. And there were signs everywhere of how little time he has had to prepare for his new responsibilities.

His nameplate was not yet on the door to his new office. His furniture did not arrive until Monday night. While senators were being sworn in, he nervously flipped through a loose-leaf binder with information on parliamentary procedures and the text of his first speech. Seasoned staff members hovered.

Byrd, a master of Senate procedures, did not make it easy for him. Whenever there was a parliamentary misstep, Byrd corrected Frist.

Frist also got an early glimpse of the type of political challenges he will face when he made his move to bring up the bill to extend unemployment benefits.

At issue was a temporary program created last year in response to the ailing economy: It provided the additional 13 weeks of federal unemployment aid to people who have exhausted the typical 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits. That program expired Dec. 28, despite efforts by members of both parties to keep it alive.

Republican leaders struck a compromise Monday that essentially would revive last year's program.

Although the measure is longer and more costly than many House Republicans wanted, the pressure was on to act: The Labor Department said that, if the bill became law by Thursday, checks would continue to flow uninterrupted.

The bill, expected to cost about $7.25 billion and last through May 31, would continue to allow workers who have used up their regular state benefits to get 13 extra weeks of federal aid.

That wasn't enough for many Democrats, who wanted a more generous plan that would allow people who had already received a 13-week extension to get another 13 weeks. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) tried to offer an amendment to allow that, but Republicans refused to allow a vote on it.

In protest, Democrats temporarily blocked Frist from bringing the bill to a vote. But they relented and allowed the bill to pass by acclamation.

Frist, who had thought he had an agreement on the bill before bringing it to the floor, said he believed the Democratic tactic was akin to a hazing ritual for him.

"On my first day," Frist said, "they wanted to try and test me."

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Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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