House approves broadest ethics bill since '70s
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was elected America's first female speaker of the House on Thursday in a bipartisan celebration of a historic...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was elected America's first female speaker of the House on Thursday in a bipartisan celebration of a historic breakthrough, and hours later she presided over passage of the broadest ethics and lobbying reforms since the Watergate era.
Democrats took control of the House and Senate after 12 years of nearly unbroken Republican rule, with calls for bipartisanship and a pledge to move quickly on an agenda of health care, homeland security, education and energy proposals.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., 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 by Pelosi, it was her day.
"This is an historic moment, for Congress and for the women of this country," said Pelosi, who is now second in the line of succession to the president, behind the vice president. "It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. To our daughters and our granddaughters, the sky is the limit."
In the House, Democrats did not skip a beat between formally taking control and getting to work on what they have called their hundred-hours agenda.
Thursday night, the House nearly unanimously approved a package of internal rules changes designed to sever cozy links between lawmakers and lobbyists.
The changes would prohibit House members or employees from knowingly accepting gifts or travel from a registered lobbyist, foreign agent or lobbyist's client. Lawmakers could no longer fly on corporate jets. In addition, congressional travel financed by outside groups would have to be pre-approved by the ethics committee and immediately disclosed to the public.
What House Democrats want to do with the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress:
Minimum wage: Raise minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour over two years.
Stem cells: Expand opportunity for federally funded research on embryonic stem cells.
Drug prices: Require government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower Medicare drug prices.
Energy: Recover royalties many lawmakers believe have been unfairly avoided; establish a fund to promote renewable energy and conservation; and repeal handful of oil-industry tax breaks.
Homeland security: Create intelligence oversight panel within House Appropriations Committee and implement 9/11 Commission recommendations.
Student loans: Halve interest rates on government student loans.
Spending: Re-impose rule requiring tax cuts or new spending on benefit programs such as Medicare to be accompanied by revenue increases or tax cuts elsewhere in budget.
The Associated Press
The measure was approved 430-1, with only Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., voting against it. This was a remarkable change considering House Republicans barely passed a far weaker measure last May, and ultimately enacted nothing because they could not reach agreement with the Senate. But voters in November identified corruption as one of their primary concerns, and the House responded.
"It's amazing what an election will do," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
The Senate is expected to take up its own new ethics rules next week.
For Pelosi, Thursday's election was not only the culmination of a long climb by women through the ranks of Congress but a personal triumph for a hard-nosed partisan 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. 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.
When House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, rose to present the gavel to the new speaker, he acknowledged 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 the Senate chamber, members lined up in groups of four to take their oaths from Vice President Dick Cheney. Former senators, including Democrats John Breaux, Chuck Robb and Jean Carnahan, circulated on the floor to offer congratulations. Family members crowded the surrounding corridors, including former President Clinton.
The Senate will plunge into its own ethics and lobbying package next week, then take up legislation to boost the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. But it was clear Thursday 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 a closed-door Senate meeting in the morning. "But Senator McConnell and I believe this is a new day in Washington."
Reid nodded to his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I think Harry's got it right," McConnell said.
Today, Democrats hope to pass new rules to promote open deliberations in the House, rein in special-interest spending and lawmaker pet projects, and prohibit passage of spending or tax measures that increase the federal deficit.
Over the next two weeks, Democrats in the House plan to enact new homeland-security measures, increase the minimum wage, allow federally funded stem-cell research, permit the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare, cut student-loan interest rates and fund alternative energy research by rolling back tax breaks for oil companies.
But Pelosi herself acknowledged that her carefully constructed consensus agenda will not satisfy the angry electorate that swept the Democrats to power. Democrats will have to confront President Bush on the larger, more controversial issues of the day: the war in Iraq, the treatment of suspected terrorists in military tribunals and warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.
Her call Thursday for a new direction in Iraq "that allows us to responsibly redeploy American forces" elicited strong applause in her party while clearly splitting Republicans, many of whom joined the ovation.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.
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