Friends call them "the magnificent seven," although some liberals might contend that "malevolent" is a better term. Whatever their nickname, the new Republican senators sworn into office yesterday promise to be the vanguard of a renewed congressional push to revamp Social Security, rewrite the tax code, limit civil liabilities and place conservative judges on the federal bench.
The seven newcomers took center stage as the 109th Congress convened, with Republicans holding expanded majorities in both chambers. The GOP's growth is modest in the 435-member House, where the party gained three net seats in November. But it is robust in the Senate, where the Republican edge is now 55 to 45, compared with last year's 51 to 49.
The reason for the conservatives' optimism goes beyond simple numbers, however. Several of the new GOP senators established solid-right reputations in the House before running for the Senate.
Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) campaigned on eliminating the federal income tax and payroll taxes. Tom Coburn (Okla.) called for executing doctors who perform abortions. David Vitter campaigned so vigorously against pork barrel projects and legislative privileges that he angered Republicans as well as Democrats in his home state of Louisiana.
None of them, however, enters the Senate with a bigger reputation than John Thune, the lanky former House member who toppled Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle in South Dakota. Thune, who turns 44 on Friday, said Democrats cannot ignore the successful Republican campaigns, especially his, in which he portrayed Daschle as the chief obstructionist of GOP goals.
"This going from 51 to 55 is not inconsequential," he told reporters. "I think it will hopefully change the psychology of the Senate."
Alluding to last year's parliamentary tactics by Senate Democrats that blocked confirmation votes on 10 of President Bush's judicial nominees, Thune said: "I have to believe that on . . . judicial nominations, people who maybe felt in the past obligated to toe the line to sustain a filibuster are now going to look at it and say we've got to give these nominees an up-or-down vote."
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who chaired the campaign committee that helped elect the freshmen -- five of them from the South -- could barely contain his glee. The "magnificent seven," he said, will fuel renewed efforts to limit lawsuits, cut taxes and confirm conservative judges.
"I really believe with this strengthened majority we can get all of this done," he said in one of numerous Capitol corridor interviews.
As for Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees, which require 60 votes to halt, Allen said: "I don't think they'll have the votes to continue even if they want to."
Democrats conceded no such thing. "We'll have to see what they do," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats had to content themselves with claiming the most glamorous freshman: Barack Obama (Ill.), a former state senator who rocketed to the national stage last year with an overwhelming election victory and a widely lauded speech at the Democratic convention. (The other Democratic freshman, Ken Salazar, grabbed a seat vacated by a retiring Republican in the swing state of Colorado).
Obama, the first African American to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review, was recently featured on Newsweek's cover. But the senator, 43, tried to play down his fame -- as well as Democratic expectations -- as aides frequently shooed away national reporters and photographers yesterday to make room for those from Illinois news outlets.
"I'm the 99th-ranking senator in seniority, from the minority party," Obama said as he strolled to a reception holding the hand of his daughter, Malia, 6. "I think it's unreasonable to say I'm going to drive the agenda." He said he will do what served him well in the Illinois Senate: diligently study the issues, avoid name-calling and look for ways to bring opposing groups together.
Back among the Republicans, newly sworn-in Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) said the Democrats are not the only senators who must respond to the hard-charging freshman class. "There's going to be tremendous pressure on the Republican leadership to move at a slightly different pace" -- that is, faster -- on conservative priorities such as curtailing civil liabilities stemming from lawsuits, Burr said.
As if on cue, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he will soon introduce a bill to limit class-action lawsuits, a move that narrowly failed in the previous Congress.
The chambers were gaveled to order at noon -- the hour prescribed by the Constitution. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was reelected and then administered the oath of office to 41 new House members, as well as to the veterans.
Amid all the talk of parliamentary strategies and political pressures, the day had its lighter moments. Vice President Cheney swore in the 34 senators elected or reelected in November. His duties brought him face to face with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) for the first time since Cheney dismissed the lawmaker with a vulgarity on the Senate floor last year.
This time, the two men exchanged handshakes and brief pleasantries without incident in the Senate chamber and in the ritual re-enactments in the Old Senate Chamber, where cameras are allowed.
"We appropriately congratulated each other" on the November results, Leahy said afterward. "It's better to be sworn in than sworn at."