WASHINGTON — As the 111th Congress convened Tuesday with the biggest Democratic majorities since the early 1990s, the economy reeling and the vacant Illinois Senate seat commanding much of the attention, members were in a reserved, even somber mood.
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., set the tone in a brief speech after colleagues elected her to a second two-year term as the speaker of the House of Representatives
"As we take the oath of office today, we accept a level of responsibility as daunting and demanding as any that previous generations of leadership have faced," she said.
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Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed quick, bold action.
"Some may fear the depth of the challenges we face, but I remind them that adversity is no stranger to our country," he said. "Yet in America and in this Senate chamber, we have never failed to persevere and prosper."
He summoned history, recalling how in the Senate, "our union came unraveled and was mended, great wars were challenged, upheld and expanded."
The absence of the partisan bitterness that's characterized Congress for years was notable.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, vowed, "Republicans will strive not to be the party of opposition, but the party of better solutions," a line that sparked widespread applause from Democratic members.
Democrats gained 21 House seats and at least seven Senate seats in the last election. Not since President Bill Clinton's first two years, 1993 and 1994, have the Democrats had such big majorities.
However, Clinton's stumbles on health care and his deficit-reduction plan, largely unpopular with Republicans, helped the Republican Party surge in 1994 and win control of Congress.
This time, lawmakers confront challenges far more ominous than those of the early Clinton days.
The economy has been in a recession since December 2007. President-elect Barack Obama has been talking with key members about a stimulus plan that's expected to cost at least $775 billion, and House leaders plan a forum Wednesday morning to discuss alternatives.
Action is likely later this month, and congressional Republicans have signaled that they like the potential $300 billion in tax cuts that Obama is proposing.
Before Obama takes office Jan. 20, though, Congress has other business to tackle, and some of it promises to be unpleasant.
Much of the news media attention Tuesday was directed at Roland Burris, the former Illinois attorney general tapped by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — who's accused of corruption and taking bribes — to fill Obama's Senate seat. Burris entered the Senate side of the Capitol escorted by Senate Sergeant-of-Arms Chief Terrance Gainer.
Burris presented his credentials to Nancy Erickson, the secretary of the Senate, who rejected them.
Afterward, Burris addressed a throng of reporters on a muddy lawn outside the building and said, "Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator of Illinois."
Reid said Burris' papers weren't in order because the Illinois secretary of state had refused to sign the credentials and had called Burris' appointment invalid because of Blagojevich's federal corruption investigation.
Some of the newly sworn-in senators said they felt sympathy for Burris, but they added firmly that the legal process in Illinois and Blagojevich's plight — the ongoing federal investigation and impeachment proceedings by the state legislature — need to play out before Burris is seated.
Still, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said he was impressed by the way Burris conducted himself Tuesday.
"He didn't demand anything," Nelson said. "So far, so good."
Reid also addressed another controversy: the fate of a Minnesota Senate seat. Democrat Al Franken has been declared the winner over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman in a certified recount.
However, Reid didn't seat Franken, who wasn't present, on Tuesday because of Coleman's right to challenge the results in court. Reid, who's been on the winning and losing ends of close elections in the past, made an impassioned plea on the Senate floor for Coleman to accept the recount results.
"He's entitled to the opportunity to proceed however he feels, but for someone who has been in the trenches in a number of elections, graciously conceding . . . would be the right step," Reid said. "This can't drag on forever, I understand that. I hope Senator Coleman and all the Republican colleagues choose to respect the will of the people of Minnesota who have chosen Al Franken, whose term must begin and will begin soon."
Coleman told supporters Tuesday in St. Paul that he'd sue Minnesota election officials over their decision giving the election to Franken by a 225 votes. By law, any lawsuit must be filed within the next week.
Otherwise, Reid and other senators struck a conciliatory tone. Vice President Dick Cheney swore in 32 senators, including his successor, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Biden was sworn in to another term as a senator from Delaware, but he'll hold the office only briefly, since he begins his new job Jan. 20.
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