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Some light moments emerge as Democrats take over Congress

WASHINGTON—At age 89, Sen. Robert Byrd's gait may have been slowed, but his enthusiasm was positively boyish when he was sworn in Thursday as the Senate's president pro tempore, the official who presides over the Senate in the vice president's absence and is third in line for the presidency.

"Yeah, man! Yeah, man! Hallelujah, hallelujah!" Byrd, D-W.Va., shouted repeatedly after being sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney, who is president of the Senate.

Byrd's celebration was one of many quirky sights and sounds on Capitol Hill Thursday as the 110th Congress opened for business with Democrats at the helm of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

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Former President Clinton surprised journalists by strolling through the Senate Press Gallery surrounded by a security detail. Together they visited the gallery's men's room.

Clinton brushed off reporters' questions as he departed for the visitors' gallery, where he and his daughter Chelsea watched Hillary Rodham Clinton get sworn in for her second term as the junior senator from New York. Will she run for president? "Ask her," her husband replied.

The visitors' gallery also featured a dash of Hollywood with actor Richard Gere and singer Tony Bennett sitting in the tight row of seats alongside the rest of the well-wishers.

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Like Byrd, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., was giddy over his new position as House Democratic whip, the third-ranking leader.

"Let's go to church, let's go to church!" crowed a beaming Clyburn as he left the Capitol for a pre-swearing-in religious service. Later Clyburn attended a ceremony in his ornate office where he was given an actual whip by former Rep. William Gray, D-Pa., who in 1989 had become the first African-American House majority whip. Clyburn's the second.

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the outgoing House majority whip, attended the ceremony. He recalled that every now and then students would look at the whip in his office and timidly ask: "You actually get to whip the members?"

Upon receiving the whip from Gray, Clyburn quipped, "I'll start with my wife, who I believe is somewhere in this room."

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Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., made history Thursday by becoming the first Muslim member of Congress. He touched off a mini-controversy last month by announcing his intention to be sworn in with his hand on the Quran.

Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., R-Va., led the outcry, warning that more Muslims will swamp American culture unless there's stiff immigration reform.

Ellison is an African-American, not an immigrant.

Thursday Ellison silenced many critics by using a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Then Ellison walked over and introduced himself to Goode, whose district includes Jefferson's home of Monticello. Ellison invited him to share a cup of coffee, and Goode accepted.

"I don't anticipate we're going to have any problems," Ellison said later. "We're not going to hold any grudges."

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For the first time in 12 years, Democrats knew they'd win the House speaker's election. As the voice vote progressed, many seemed to be competing to see who could most grandiosely announce their vote for California Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

"On behalf of my three daughters, Nancy Pelosi," said Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania.

"The first woman, a daughter of Italy, Pelosi," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

"In the name of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, and in the name of Jesus, Nancy Pelosi," intoned Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois.

"For the empowerment of all women in the world, and individually because you really deserve it, Nancy Pelosi," said Rep. Linda Sanchez of California.

At one point, a voice from the Republican side grumbled near a microphone, "All right, all right."

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On the Senate floor, some familiar faces from the past escorted new members to be sworn in. Two former Republican Senate majority leaders from Tennessee—Howard Baker and Bill Frist—escorted freshman Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

Former Democratic Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia, John Glenn of Ohio, John Breaux of Louisiana, and Chuck Robb of Virginia, walked around the Senate chamber slapping backs and sharing memories.

Robb may have felt a sense of sweet revenge. He accompanied Virginia's new Democratic senator, James Webb, who won his seat by upsetting former Sen. George Allen, the Republican who ousted Robb from the Senate in 2000.

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Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri celebrated his new chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee with a reception that drew dozens of members, staffers, military brass and lobbyists.

"I'm a lot better-looking and a lot smarter than I was a few months ago," Skelton joked.

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(Kevin Diaz and Matt Stearns of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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