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Old and new Washington collided on Capitol Hill Monday, and new won.
Within moments of flicking on the Senate lights, Sen. Mitch McConnell announced that when it came to pork barrel politics he had changed his mind. The Senate’s staunchest fan of so-called earmarks reversed course and supported a ban on those special spending requests, a bow to the tea partiers and others in the populist, antiestablishment wave that gave the GOP control of the House and six more seats in the Senate.
“Old habits aren’t easy to break, but sometimes they must be,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
His announcement put an exclamation mark on the return of lawmakers to Capitol Hill Monday for a “lame duck” session before the newcomers take their places officially in January. There’s still major business for the current Congress, from tax cuts that will or won’t be preserved to possible special Social Security checks to spending bills to keep the government going.
Monday was an extraordinary day that blended Congresses past, present and future as the fading Democratic majority began to yield.
It wasn’t going quietly.
For the more than 100 rookies dining and orienting around campus, there was no starker lesson than the spectacle of Rep. Charles Rangel, a once-mighty committee chairman now facing ethics charges — four decades after his arrival was supposed to herald the shake-up of an old, corrupt political order.
“My reputation — 50 years of public service! — has to suffer,” the New York Democrat cried out before stalking out of his ethics trial.
There were plenty of other lessons, pedestrian as well as profound for the new folks: not only how to be an employer, a first for some of them, and how to avoid Washington’s ethical traps, but also where to eat, how to vote, how to get to the subway beneath the Capitol, even which elevators to use.
As for politics — in case any politicians had missed the message of the Nov. 2 elections — triumphant conservative activists, many of them tea partiers, rallied on the Capitol lawn with signs urging Congress to heed their call for smaller government and greater accountability.
“Phase One, Nov. 2010. Complete,” read one sign. “Phase Two. Nov. 2012. We are watching you.”
Acutely aware of that, longtime lawmakers began to let change flow through the corridors of power, already heavy with the cold-weather scent of fireplaces ablaze in the Capitol’s grand parlors.
President Barack Obama, just back from a 10-day trip to the other side of the globe, said he would be ready to talk policy when the Republicans were finished celebrating. He said of his upcoming meeting with congressional leaders: “I’m sure it will be very relaxing.”
“Campaigning is very different from governing. All of us learn that. And they’re still flush with victory,” he said. “We’re going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates.”
Obama, who earlier had endorsed a crackdown on earmarks, praised McConnell’s announcement, but not all Democrats were on the anti-earmarks bandwagon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid‘s spokesman, Jim Manley, said, “From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada.”
Change was evident at the lunch table, too. In the Senate, 16 newly elected senators — 13 of them Republicans — were invited to dine with veterans, including some not returning next year. Two rookies, Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, were sworn in to fill empty seats in their states.
And change took hold of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s world, which was suspended between the old Congress and new.
She’s still speaker, second in line to the presidency but not yet the Democratic leader in the new Congress. Those elections are to be held on Wednesday.
She still has chores, including spending time with the very Republicans who won big gains in Congress in part by vilifying her.
On Sunday, she left the comfort of a visit with her grandchildren for a speech welcoming the incoming freshmen. Officials who attended the closed-door session said Pelosi stuck to stock advice: represent your district, follow the Constitution.
Monday night, she was hosting an open house in what is her turf for just a little longer — the speaker’s suite of offices under the Capitol dome.
In the House, the old guard reconvened for the first votes since the Democrats’ shellacking. Democrats Suzanne Kosmas and Ron Klein, both of Florida and both defeated, shared a warm embrace as Kosmas wiped a tear.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press