House opens session with short try at peace

New speaker urges teamwork, but politics of impeachment erupt

January 07, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The 106th Congress began yesterday with new House Speaker Dennis Hastert vowing a season of bipartisanship even as senators nearby prepared to launch a bitter impeachment trial against President Clinton.

As always, congressional children in miniature suits and satin dresses clambered over furniture on this swearing-in day, but the backdrop for the starting ceremonies for the House and Senate was hardly so fancy-free.

In the Senate, 100 senators prepared to be sworn in today as jurors in Clinton's impeachment trial by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In the House, Republican loyalists marched the halls with buttons reading, "The Coach is My Speaker," referring to former wrestling coach and new House Speaker Hastert.

Hoping to capitalize on this team spirit, Hastert vowed unity in the House, poured on the sports analogies and all but took out a clipboard and a whistle to rally his political players.

"In the turbulent days behind us, debate on the merits often gave way to personal attacks," Hastert said, choosing to make his address from the well of the House instead of the more lofty speaker's chair. "Some have felt slighted, insulted or ignored. That is wrong -- and that will change. Solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness."

During his speech, Hastert handed the gavel temporarily to House Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt in a show of bipartisanship. For his part, Gephardt swore to make a similar effort to heal the divisions of the past Congress. "Let's bury the hatchet," he told the House. "Let's put to rest finally the poisonous politics that has infected this place."

But if the hatchet was buried at all yesterday, it wasn't for long.

By the afternoon, the House was split largely along party lines over whether to reappoint 13 Republicans from the House Judiciary Committee to serve as managers in the Senate impeachment trial.

Already, some House Democrats were questioning whether the moderate themes struck by Hastert in his floor speech would really last beyond the day's photo opportunities.

"It remains to be seen how much control the new speaker will have over the agenda," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, suggesting that the more right-wing members of the Republican Party could exert "behind-the-scenes power over him."

Today, Republicans hold one of the most narrow majorities in congressional history. The new House lost five Republican seats and now is composed of 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning Independent. The seat of former speaker Newt Gingrich is vacant. The Senate retained the same 55 to 45 Republican majority.

The official message yesterday: Compromise. A deputy sergeant-at-arms donned white gloves to carry an ebony and silver mace into the House chamber. Should a lawmaker step out of line, lawmakers can walk the mace over and present it as a symbol of good decorum.

"I've never seen that mace used," said Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett as he examined the long black and silver wand. "It's really just a reminder to us here."

The vote for speaker also was undertaken with old-fashioned congressional ritual, with each member calling their vote across the House floor as they once did instead of using the electronic voting system. The party-line split was 220 for Hastert to 205 for Gephardt. Hastert slammed the gavel for the first time yesterday to stop the applause from both sides of the aisle after he was named speaker.

In his speech, Hastert called for the House to reform Social Security and Medicare, pass all the appropriations bills by the summer, provide schools more control over their use of federal money, lower taxes and create a stronger national defense in the age of terrorism.

While the impeachment trial occupied most members of Congress, it took a back seat to a more personal historic moment for some freshman lawmakers: Day One in Washington.

Rep. Robin Hayes, a North Carolina Republican, brought 50 loyal supporters to his swearing-in: The crowd traveled to the capital on a bus that played the movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Hayes sounded a bit like Mr. Smith himself as he declared near the Capitol dome, "You lose your cynicism when you see how the process of democracy really works."

Fellow first-time Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, cast his first procedural votes on the House floor. He misted up when he saw his three-year-old grandson waving at him from the spectator's gallery and his name on the voting board -- "spelled right and everything."

But reality set in soon: As Tancredo walked his grandson toward the congressional subway system for a quick joyride, three lobbyists stopped him in the halls with hopes of chatting about education matters -- issues he will oversee as a member of a House education committee.

New and old members brought their children and grandchildren and friends onto the House floor to watch the swearing in. Two-year-old Karen Hinojosa, decked out in a long white dress with a congressional seal on her bib, even raised her right hand alongside her father, freshman Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, when the oath was administered.

But the day had a rote quality to it. Even John Conyers III, the eight-year-old son of Rep. John Conyers, an 18-term Michigan Democrat, seemed to know what was coming next. As he watched lawmakers cast their votes for speaker from a television in a members-only cafeteria, he called out "Gephardt" or "Hastert" as he heard the lawmakers' names. Apparently, the youngster had memorized party affiliations the way some kids study baseball statistics.

"It's a preordained ceremony," said California Democratic Rep. George Brown, who watched young Conyers in action. "But it's an important ceremony in the life of democracy."

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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