Democrats Take Control on Hill

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 5, 2007

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was elected America's first female speaker of the House yesterday in a raucous, bipartisan celebration of a historic breakthrough, and hours later she presided over passage of the broadest ethics and lobbying revision since the Watergate era.

Democrats took control of the House and Senate after 12 years of nearly unbroken Republican rule, with resolute calls for bipartisan comity and a pledge to move quickly on an agenda of health-care, homeland security, education and energy proposals. Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the soft-spoken son of a hard-rock miner, took the helm of the Senate, after a closed-door session in the Capitol's stately Old Senate Chamber. But with the eyes of history riveted on her, it was Pelosi's day.

"This is an historic moment, for Congress, and for the women of this country. It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years," Pelosi proclaimed, to a roaring ovation in the packed House chamber. "For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. To our daughters and our granddaughters, the sky is the limit."

For Pelosi, yesterday's election was not only the culmination of a long climb by women through the ranks of Congress but also the personal triumph of a hard-nosed partisan, a grandmother of six who methodically plotted the Democrats' return to power after more than a decade in the minority. A House floor where Democrats had been marginalized to the point of irrelevance in recent years was alive with handshakes, smiles, hugs and boisterous children on the Democratic side of the aisle. Republicans, once so confident in what many saw as a permanent majority, sat glumly watching the festivities.

As Pelosi entered the chamber before her formal, party-line election, the House erupted in bipartisan applause. Only Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), the outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, remained seated in stony silence. Pelosi's predecessor as speaker, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), sat quietly and unobtrusively in the rear of the chamber, except for one brief moment of recognition.

When House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) rose to present the gavel to the new speaker, he was magnanimous in acknowledging both the roots of Republican defeat last November and the historic import of the moment.

"In a few moments, I'll have the high privilege of handing the gavel of the House of Representatives to a woman for the first time in American history," he told his fellow lawmakers. "Whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, this is a cause for celebration."

He concluded with a warning for Democrats, gleaned from his party's pursuit of power and the lessons learned from defeat: "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 do great things."

In what must be another first, the gavel changed hands with a hug and a kiss.

In the Senate chamber, members lined up in groups of four to take their oaths with Vice President Cheney. Former senators, including Democrats John Breaux (La.), Charles S. Robb (Va.) and Jean Carnahan (Mo.), circulated on the floor to offer congratulations. Outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), now retired from the Senate, joked with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as the Democratic presidential prospect worked his way through the crowd. Family members crowded the surrounding corridors, including former president Bill Clinton. Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) shouted "Praise Jesus!" during the opening prayer.

The Senate will plunge into its own ethics and lobbying overhaul package next week, then take up legislation to boost the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. But it was clear yesterday that the Senate would have no choice but to take a more deliberative approach to the issues the House plans to bulldoze through. Senate leaders pledged bipartisanship, and in a chamber divided 51 to 49 , they will have no choice.

"Now, I know that you're not accustomed, members of the press, to people getting along, working together," Reid told reporters after the closed-door Senate meeting in the morning. "But Senator McConnell and I believe this is a new day in Washington."

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