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Reporter's Notebook: A new day on the Hill
Wednesday - 1/7/2009, 6:51am EST
By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio and the Associated Press
Its a new day, and a new Congress on Capitol Hill. Today marks the opening session for both the House and the Senate in the 111th Congress. And for the day, at least, lawmakers are able to momentarily put aside politics and the process of legislating to savor the moment with friends and family.
As much as anything else, the mood of the Capitol on this first day, would be that of a church social, or a picnic, only the food is on china and eaten with silverware... and instead of shorts and flipflops, it's suits, dresses and heels, as family members and friends proudly accompany famous lawmakers up to Capitol Hill to be part of history.
It's tradition here on Capitol Hill, the hustle and bustle of the opening day of a new session of Congress. The first order of business is the swearing in of newly elected incoming, and returning Senators who have won re-election, gather in groups of four, raise their hands, and take an oath administered on the Senate Floor by Vice President Dick Cheney, in one of the last times that he will perform the ritual before leaving office on Inauguration Day. In a somewhat odd twist, one of those taking the oath for his seventh term is Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who also won re-election as the senior Senator from Delaware. Don't worry, he's expected to step down by Inauguration Day to take his new job.
Family, friends, and constituents will often watch from the packed visitors galleries, while others take in the moment on big screen televisions in the lawmaker in their Senate office. Several years ago, we followed the first day on the job for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who had a huge posse from the "show me state", including sons and daughters, grandkids, people who had campaigned for her, and proud friends from back home. By all accounts at the time, she had at least 50 people to help shepherd around the Capitol on the day she was sworn in.
After the official swearing in on the Senate floor, the new and returning Senators either head back to their offices , or head to the old Senate chamber, located in the oldest part of the Capitol. There, with a little more space to play with, Vice Presiden Cheney will re-enact the swearing in, this time individually with the new lawmaker's family and friends clustered around for photographers. In some cases, local television stations dispatch news crews to Washington just to capture this made for photos moment. After the cameras finish, the newly minted Senators and their families and friends pour into the hallway outside the Senate chamber, where reporters hover to get a word or two from the new lawmaker. With that in mind, we sidled over to talk to Senator Mary Landrieu, the returning Democrat from Louisiana, just moments after her family watched her get sworn in.
"I'm chairing the Senate Small Business Committee," she said while strolling with her family to waiting Senate elevators. "I'm thrilled to be working with Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine) who is the ranking member. And I understand that we'll be the first woman-team chairing a full committee in the history of the Congress, so we're both very honored. We're looking forward to being strong advocates for the millions of small businesses that make this country go. "
Before ducking into a packed lift with her family, Landrieu also says one of her goals is to try and direct some of the forthcoming economic stimulus bill to the nation's small businesses, which have been adversely affected by the economic downturn.
It should be noted here that Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois was not among the Senators sworn in today - the Senate secretary informed him that he would not be seated because his paperwork wasn't in order. He pledged a lawsuit, the latest twist in a political drama that began when he was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with having attempted to sell the seat.
Across the Capitol, Lorraine Miller, clerk of the House, rapped the opening gavel, calling the House of Representatives to order around Noon, the prelude to a day of ceremony highlighted by Nancy Pelosi's re-election as speaker. "We need action and we need action now," she said minutes after taking the gavel, symbol of her authority. Its her second term as the Speaker. Just as in the Senate, Pelosi then spent much of the afternoon administering the oath of office individually to clusters of representatives before taking up the first legislation of the new term.