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Historic firsts mark Congress convening

WASHINGTON - A host of historic firsts took place Thursday as the 110th Congress convened under new leadership and Midwestern lawmakers stood poised to assume more power on Capitol Hill.

Nancy Pelosi

WASHINGTON - A host of historic firsts took place Thursday as the 110th Congress convened under new leadership and Midwestern lawmakers stood poised to assume more power on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. House gathered under Democratic control for the first time in 12 years, and immediately the new leaders talked of ethics reform as part of a broad-ranging set of goals for the first 100 hours of their control.

"It's a lot of responsibility, and I think we're ready," said Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents western Minnesota's 7th District.

History was made in the new Congress as Nancy Pelosi, who steered House Democrats to their big November election victory, became the first female House speaker.

"I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship," the San Francisco Democrat said in her first speech as speaker.


Attention also was focused on Keith Ellison, who became the first Muslim congressman. The Democrat represents Minnesota's 5th District - Minneapolis and nearby suburbs - and also is the state's first black congressman.

Ellison drew international attention Thursday as he used a Quran - the Muslim holy book - in a ceremonial oath with Pelosi. Members of Congress typically are sworn in on a Christian Bible.

A swarm of photographers packed a Capitol room as Ellison, surrounded by relatives, placed his left hand on a two-volume edition of the Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson and dated to 1764.

Democrats also took control of the Senate, and Amy Klobuchar became the first female elected senator from Minnesota. She replaces fellow Democrat Mark Dayton and joins Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

"We bring to Washington a Minnesota work ethic," Klobuchar told family and supporters at a reception before she was sworn in. "This means that Washington stops passing laws that favor the few, stops passing laws that tilt the playing field against the middle class."

The new Democratic majority also will give North Dakota's congressional delegation "a greater opportunity to chart an agenda," Sen. Byron Dorgan said.

Dorgan will lead a subcommittee handling energy and water spending, while fellow Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad assumes chairmanship of the influential Senate Budget Committee.

With the opportunity to lead comes "a very significant responsibility to perform," Dorgan said.


"We don't think it's going to be easy, but we're going to tackle this with aggressiveness and we're going to hopefully change policies in a way that will strengthen the country," he said.

Conrad, who spoke during a joint Senate Democratic and Republican caucus meeting Thursday morning, said bipartisanship is important as Congress faces tough decisions on budgeting and other issues.

"We can only hope to make progress if we work together," Conrad said he told his colleagues. "And that means compromise on all sides. Neither side can just impose its will. We simply have to come together."

"Today is a day all about change," added Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., after he was sworn in Thursday afternoon.

"I think both parties want to do things differently than they have been done," he said, adding there was a "new tone" in the dialogue of House Democratic and Republican leaders.

Coleman, who begins the fifth year of his first six-year term, said there appeared to be a willingness by Senate members on both sides of the aisle to work together on pressing issues, including the war in Iraq.

"I hope we can do it in a bipartisan way," he said. "There are not going to be just Democrat or just Republican solutions, so we're going to have to watch for common ground."

The new Congress "is going to be different" because it will lead with fiscal discipline and expose the legislative process in Washington, Peterson said.


"Everybody's going to know exactly what's being done," he said.

Peterson, a conservative Democrat, said Congress will take a "down the middle" approach. He will serve as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which is considered among the least-partisan congressional panels.

"We have a lot more people like me in the caucus, and I think that's good for the country," Peterson said of his centrist politics. "They're not going to be able to go off on some left-wing agenda."

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat representing northeast and north-central Minnesota's 8th District, said his party will make Congress more productive. Oberstar is the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"We're under new management, we have an agenda that matters to people and we are going to move on it," Oberstar said. "The American people gave us the majority and we will show them results right off the bat."

Some were skeptical of Democrats' bipartisan pledge.

Rep. John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota's 2nd District, said he remains "hopeful" about the new Congress, but that the new House majority has sent mixed messages. Democratic leaders said the minority caucus would have more rights under their leadership, but a package of House rules proposed by Democrats don't offer that, he said.

Republicans "made big strides" when they controlled the House beginning in 1995, "but apparently we didn't open it up enough."


"I'm hoping for even more openness and a change with this new majority," he said. "We'll see."

Readers can reach Forum Communications reporter Scott Wente at (651) 290-0707 or swente@forumcomm.com

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