For 111th Congress, Somber Topics Eclipse Ceremony

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) notes the
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) notes the "transformational" circumstances in Washington. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The 111th Congress began yesterday with debates over how to ease the nation's worsening recession and to fight a pair of wars overseas, adding a sense of gravity and purpose to a day normally dedicated to symbolism and the swearing-in of members.

Veterans as well as newcomers to the House and Senate said the immensity of the problems the nation faces created an opportunity to move beyond the bitter partisan battles of the last decades or, conversely, to descend into legislative gridlock that would further damage a body already suffering from historically low approval ratings.

"There's something transformational happening here," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a 34-year veteran of Congress. "It's the kind of year historians will write about. . . . Can this institution deal with it?"

While the mood in the Senate was one of bipartisan consensus, Republicans in the House accused Democrats of rewriting the rules to strip away what little power they have left. Brushing aside the criticism, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed quick action on an economic stimulus plan, universal health care and climate change legislation, among other issues that have stalled during the Bush administration.

"We need action, and we need action now," Pelosi said repeatedly.

With Democrats' big gains on Election Day giving the caucus at least 256 members, Pelosi swore in the largest majority either party has held since 1993. In the Senate, seven seats had to be physically removed from the right side of the chamber and bolted down on the left side of the aisle to accommodate Democratic newcomers.

Democrat Al Franken, who has been certified as the winner of a Senate seat from Minnesota, did not join his colleagues in the Capitol yesterday, after Republican Norm Coleman announced he would file a legal contest to the ruling by state election officials that Franken defeated him by 225 votes. The legal action could delay the seating of Franken for weeks or even months.

If Franken prevails and the controversy surrounding the successor to President-elect Barack Obama is settled, Democrats will hold 59 seats in the Senate, the largest majority either party has claimed since 1980. Democrats would be one vote shy of the 60 needed to thwart filibusters.

Obama told a bipartisan group of congressional leaders Monday that tax cuts would represent about 40 percent of the total cost for the stimulus plan, with the likely focus coming on a $1,000-per-household tax cut and business tax credits, which would allow firms to write off purchases more quickly, and an increase in small-business expensing limits.

The plan would also include $350 billion for infrastructure programs such as highway construction, an upgrade of health-care technology, the extension of unemployment benefits and increased funds for food stamps. In addition, states would receive at least $100 billion to help cover shortfalls in Medicaid funding and other budget items.

Rank-and-file Republicans questioned the details of the stimulus plan, large portions of which were negotiated over the holiday break by Obama advisers and Democratic staff members, and suggested that could set the stage for how the Obama agenda takes shape over the next two years.

"Somebody needs to slow this train down," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), warning Republicans that they should not accept "small, temporary tax cuts" -- which Obama advisers have pegged at $300 billion -- "in exchange for massive federal spending."

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