In a show of strength at the dawn of a new Congress, majority Republicans passed new ethics standards opposed by House Democrats on Tuesday and threatened to change Senate rules if necessary to confirm President Bush’s court appointees.
“In this Congress, big plans will stir men’s blood,” pledged Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, re-elected speaker. He vowed to spend the next two years pursuing key elements of Bush’s ambitious second-term agenda.
He mentioned Social Security, including Bush’s call to allow individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes on their own. The Illinois Republican also pledged action on energy and transportation bills and a measure to crack down on lawsuits.
“We must also start a national debate on completely overhauling our tax code,” he added, leaving unclear whether another key presidential objective would become law over the next two years.
Hastert will preside over a House majority bigger by three as a result of the Nov. 2 elections. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee leads a group of 55 Republicans – four more than the GOP had in the old Congress.
The opening gavels fell at noon – the hour dictated by the Constitution – for a day of pomp and controversy.
Hastert administered the oath of office to 41 new House members as well as the veterans. Across the Capitol, Vice President Dick Cheney swore in the 34 senators elected on Nov. 2. Among them were seven GOP freshmen who helped expand the GOP majority and leave Democrats with their smallest representation in seven decades.
House Democrats criticized the GOP ethics rules in the first partisan fight of the Congress, but Republicans prevailed on a vote of 220-195.
Democratic prospects in the dispute diminished markedly following a series of concessions blessed by Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Monday night.
“The proposed changes are destructive and unethical,” evidence of Republican arrogance and pettiness, charged Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., looking across the House floor to the Republicans, said, “The lesson we have today is you have the power and you break the rules and you can change them.”
Specifically, the Democrats focused fire on a proposal to require a majority vote of the ethics panel for any complaint to be pursued. Membership of the panel consists of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, meaning that lawmakers of either party could unify and block action.
Current rules provide for an automatic investigation of a complaint unless the full committee decides on an alternative approach. That procedure, in effect since 1997, replaced a different requirement for a majority vote that had been in effect for many years.
DeLay predicted that the Democratic criticism would be the first of “countless personal attacks against the integrity of the majority and ultimately against the House.”
In the Senate, Frist announced he would seek confirmation in February of “one of the president’s very capable, qualified and experienced judicial nominees.” Bush recently renominated 20 candidates for the federal bench, many of whose confirmations were blocked by Democrats in the previous Congress.
“I seek cooperation, not confrontation,” Frist said. “Cooperation simply means voting judicial nominees brought to the floor up or down.” He said that if Democrats don’t filibuster judicial nominees “it will then be unnecessary to change Senate procedures.”
But if Democrats choose to block a vote, he said, “the Senate will face this choice: Fail to do its constitutional duty or reform itself, restore its traditions and do what the framers intended.”
Democrats blocked votes on several appointments during the past two years by invoking a rule that required Republicans to gain 60 votes.
In the House, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. who was chairman of the ethics committee last year, said he had concerns about the ethics changes but intended to support them nonetheless. That was not the case, he said, until GOP leaders agreed to modifications.
Republicans retreated on two points Monday night.
One, a matter of party policy only, reinstated the rule that requires a party leader to step aside if indicted. Republican leaders had proposed eliminating that requirement late last year in a gesture of support for DeLay. Three associates of the Texas lawmaker are under indictment in Texas on state charges. DeLay has not been indicted, and his aides depict the investigation as politically motivated.
On another point, Republicans agreed to retain a rule that applies to the entire House. It requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House,” a standard that has often been cited by the ethics committee as cause for action against House members.
“They came to their senses,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., referring to leaders of his own party.
Barring the changes, LaHood said in an interview, many rank-and-file Republicans had been prepared to reject the recommendations of their leaders and support Democratic alternatives.
The visitors galleries were crowded in both the House and Senate as the 109th Congress convened. Children squirmed in grown-up-sized seats on the House floor as moms, dads and grandparents took the oath of office – some of them for the first time. Proud parents looked on, too, including former Sen. Connie Mack, in the House to witness his son and namesake join the ranks of America’s lawmakers.
“This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker,” Pelosi joked as she handed Hastert the gavel he will wield for two more years.