WASHINGTON—Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California took the oath of office Thursday as the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives, calling it "an historic moment for the Congress and for the women of this country" and "a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years."
As Democrats retook control of the House and Senate after a dozen years out of power, they moved immediately to pass lobbying and ethics reforms in the House and to establish their top 10 legislative goals in the Senate. Republicans in both chambers tried to walk a line between graciousness and pushing to hold Democrats to their pledges to include them as full partners in legislating.
Above all, the opening ceremonies of the 110th Congress were Pelosi's to relish.
After addressing the Congressional Black Caucus in the morning, the wealthy, 66-year-old liberal from San Francisco arrived in the House chamber around noon with her family in tow. She sat beside House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., whom only weeks earlier she had failed to displace in favor of her friend, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
Democrats and many Republicans gave her a standing ovation.
Above, the gallery was dotted with celebrities, including actor Richard Gere and singer Tony Bennett.
Former House members with reason to celebrate slipped back onto the floor. They included Pat Schroeder, the Colorado feminist, and John Burton of San Francisco. Burton's late brother Phil and late sister-in-law Sala each previously served in the congressional seat that Pelosi has held since 1987. They cultivated her to replace them.
As members called out their votes for speaker, Pelosi cradled the newest of her six grandchildren, a boy born days after the November election, and tried to manage the other little ones, who were busily swinging a microphone and oblivious to the import of the moment.
Pelosi defeated Republican John Boehner of Ohio on a party-line vote, 233-202. She thanked her husband, Paul, and their five children "for giving me their love, support and the confidence to go from the kitchen to the Congress."
In a well-received speech before handing over the gavel to Pelosi, Boehner, the House Republican leader, praised the election of the first female speaker, saying, "Whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, today is a cause for celebration."
He called for a respectful debate between the parties, telling Pelosi, "May the best idea win."
He also warned, "If there is one lesson that stands out from our party's time in the majority, it is this: A congressional majority is simply a means to an end. The value of a majority lies not in the chance to wield great power but in the chance to use limited power to do great things. The moment a majority forgets this lesson, it begins writing itself a ticket to minority status."
Pelosi, grinning, waved the gavel, but said, "I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship."
"By electing me speaker," she told her colleagues, "you have brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America's heritage and hope. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling."
Pelosi touched on the Iraq war only briefly, saying Americans had rejected the idea of an open-ended commitment of troops there.
"It is the responsibility of the president to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security, a plan that promotes stability in the region and that allows us to responsibly redeploy American forces," she said.
After the ceremonies, House members moved to begin voting on an ethics package that's meant to correct some of the excesses of the previous Congress, including scandals that led to the prosecutions of at least two congressmen and of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The House passed the first portion of that package overwhelmingly Thursday night, 430-1, with Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the only opponent. It largely would ban meals, gifts and travel from lobbyists. It also would ban members from taking free rides on corporate jets. A second portion of the package, which would require lawmakers to identify which "earmark" spending projects they request and to curb deficit spending, is to be voted on Friday.
With her ascent, Pelosi, a Roman Catholic whose late father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., served in Congress and as mayor of Baltimore, also becomes the first Italian-American speaker and the first speaker from California.
As the roll call for speaker was counted, Republicans simply called out Boehner's name, but several Democrats expounded on why they were voting for Pelosi: "on behalf of my three daughters" or for "the first woman speaker and a daughter of Italy" or in memory of female leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.
Some of the more poignant shouts came from members of the Black Caucus, who are looking ahead to a year when African-Americans will hold more positions of power in the House than ever, including Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., as majority whip and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., said Pelosi's election was a major step in "the struggle for equality." Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader in the `60s, called it a "historic day when the eyes of the nation are upon us."
Thursday's swearing-in ceremony was the peak of a weeklong celebration for Pelosi that included being an honored guest at the Italian Embassy, attending Mass at her alma mater, Trinity University, and praying with soldiers.
After she was sworn in, she headed to a $1,000-per-ticket concert and fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, featuring Bennett, famous for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and other singers.
On Friday afternoon, she's scheduled to be in Baltimore's Little Italy, where she was raised, to have a street named in her honor.
The Senate's opening was more low-key, but symbolically positive. Before being sworn in, members of both parties held an unofficial joint caucus in the old Senate chamber and came out of the historic room pledging to work in a bipartisan manner.
"I know that you're not accustomed, members of the press, to people getting along, working together, but Senator McConnell and I believe that this is a new day in Washington," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiling by his side.
McConnell said the meeting was "a chance for many of our members to express some of their quiet frustrations that we get past the level of partisanship that we've witnessed in recent years and develop stronger personal relationships as well as work across the party aisle."
After the swearing-in ceremonies, Reid introduced the Democrats' first 10 bills for the 110th Congress. Overhauling Congress' ethics system topped the agenda, followed by raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.
Democrats also plan to introduce bills to change the Medicare prescription-drug program, act on the 9-11 commission's recommendations, fund stem cell research, repair the nation's immigration system, strengthen the military, address rising college tuition, force Congress to tighten budget rules and develop an energy policy.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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