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Democrats Hold Thin Majority in Senate as Congress Starts

January 4, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: The new Senate began its day with an unusual closed-door gathering of the entire membership in the Old Senate Chamber. The meeting was conceived by the new majority and minority leaders, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an effort to establish a bipartisan ethic at the outset of the new session. And shortly thereafter, the two stood together and outlined their visions for the legislative session.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Senator McConnell and I believe this is a new day in Washington, that our efforts are going to be to work in a bipartisan basis, in an open fashion, to solve the problems of the American people.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: This opportunity we had in the Old Senate Chamber was a chance for many of our members to express some of their quiet frustrations, that we get past the level of partisanship that we’ve witnessed in recent years.

Old and new faces

KWAME HOLMAN: Reid and McConnell are Senate veterans and masters of their chamber's intricate rules and legislative tactics, skills that may be tested immediately. Democrats hold a thin 51-49 majority -- 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two Democratic-siding independents, the newly elected Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Absent from today's ceremonies was South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, who suffered a brain hemorrhage last month and is expected to recuperate for several months before returning to work. Ten freshmen join the 100-member body: eight Democrats, one Republican, and one independent. Among the new faces: Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Ben Cardin of Maryland; Bob Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Claire McCaskill of Missouri; Jon Tester of Montana; James Webb of Virginia; and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Joining them is Republican newcomer Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sanders, the Vermont independent. Some not-so-new faces returned to the Senate...

RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: Please raise your right hand.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... among them, Robert C. Byrd, who begins his record ninth six-year term as President pro tempore of the Senate. Following the swearing-in of the 33 new and returning senators by Vice President Cheney, the newly minted majority leader took the floor.

Attempts at bipartisanship

SEN. HARRY REID: The majority, my party, holds a very slim margin, 51-49. Some may look at this as a composition for gridlock, a recipe for gridlock, but I see this as a unique opportunity.

I guarantee everyone in this chamber -- the American people are hoping that it is a unique opportunity, an opportunity for Democrats, an opportunity for Republicans to debate our differences and seek common ground. We must turn the page on partisanship and usher in a new era of bipartisan progress. The president I know wants to accomplish things. I want to accomplish things. And he has to work with us, and we have to work with him, or jointly we do nothing to help our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reid then outlined the first 10 bills Senate Democrats will propose for the new session. First up: an ethics reform package that mirrors the effort in the House. Other priorities include a minimum wage increase, implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, strengthening and rebuilding the military, and reform measures on energy and immigration policy. Reid's Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, then rose to sound a familiar call for bipartisanship, with one proviso.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: So I'm eager to work with my colleagues to find bold solutions to big problems, yet on some things I will not yield. I'll never agree to proposals that weaken the security of our citizens at home or the capabilities of our Armed Forces abroad.

I will never agree to a tax increase on working families or small businesses. Our economy is strong because of the hard work and enterprise of Americans. We will not undermine that spirit by taxing it. And I will never agree to retreat from our responsibility to confirm qualified judicial nominees. Bipartisanship, cooperation and accomplishment -- yes, civility, yes -- but we'll remain true to our principles.

KWAME HOLMAN: Whether bipartisanship can coexist with that adherence to party principle in a body so closely divided will get its first test on Monday, when the Senate begins consideration of its ethics reform package.