KWAME HOLMAN: The plaza at the east front of the Capitol has been torn apart and dug up to make room for a new underground visitors center, scheduled for completion in 2005. And so this morning, members of the 108th Congress and their families weren't permitted to make the traditional climb up the steps leading to the House and Senate chambers for the ceremonial start of the new Congress. Instead, they waited in line to clear security checks, and entered the Capitol though side doors.
Once inside however, members and family were free to roam, and they did so, particularly in the House of Representatives. This is the only day on which children are permitted on the floor while the House is in session, and they took full advantage of the privilege. Meanwhile in the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney gaveled the chamber into session precisely at noon, marking the official opening of the 108th Congress. As President of the Senate, Cheney immediately began fulfilling his constitutional duties by issuing the oaths of office to the 35 newly elected and reelected members of the Senate.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Please raise your right hands.
KWAME HOLMAN: There were several obvious family connections. The new Senator from North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, was escorted by her husband former Kansas Senator and Majority Leader Bob Dole. Mark Pryor of Arkansas was escorted by his father and former Senator, David Pryor. And Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was escorted by her father, Frank, who after he won Alaska's gubernatorial election in November, immediately resigned his seat in the Senate and appointed his daughter to fill the vacancy. (Applause) And following the oaths, the new Senate Majority Leader offered words of hope and encouragement for the new Congress.
SEN. BILL FRIST: At this point and time our nation faces challenges with war, insuring our agenda is inclusive to all Americans. Boosting economic growth, boosting job creation, addressing multiple health care challenges that now have become crises, and ensuring our agenda is inclusive of all Americans. I look forward to working with our colleagues both on our side of the aisle and the other side of the aisle, in particular with my colleague from South Dakota, Senator Daschle, to ensure that we work together to succeed. I am convinced, I am convinced that we will find, based on our own principles, find common ground to bridge this aisle between us.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Leader Tom Daschle followed Frist, speaking just hours after his office announced he will not seek the Democratic nomination for President in 2004.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that is our charge: To do our best, to recognize that history is now in our hands, and that as we face the challenges, the responsibilities as Senators in the 108th Congress, I hope we can look back with satisfaction, with pride, and with realization that indeed we did our best.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House of Representatives convened shortly after the Senate did and proceeded to the formal election of its Speaker. On behalf of the Republicans, Ohio's Deborah Pryce nominated Dennis Hastert of Illinois. On behalf of the Democrats, New Jersey's Robert Menendez nominated California's Nancy Pelosi, who has succeeded Dick Gephardt as Democratic leader. Pelosi already has made history as the first woman ever to lead her party in Congress, and she would have been the first woman elected Speaker as well. But the Republicans hold the majority in the House and they easily reelected Hastert. It was Pelosi who handed Hastert the gavel, symbolizing his election as the leader of all members in the House.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Let me say to my good friend Mrs. Pelosi, as I welcome her to her new post as Minority Leader we're going to have our fair share of disagreements. That's the nature of our two- party system. But together we must always find ways to make America a better and a more secure place to live. My door will always be open to you as we work together in this 108th Congress and to all members of this House I say thank you for giving me the great honor to serve once again as your speaker.
KWAME HOLMAN: Aside from the official swearing in of all 435 members in the House of Representatives...
SPOKESMAN: So help you God.
GROUP: I do.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Congratulations, you are now members of the 108th Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: ...There was no other important business scheduled in the House on this opening day. But not so in the Senate. Following the ceremonial opening, Majority Leader Frist called for a quick vote to extend unemployment benefits for 750,000 workers currently receiving them.
SEN. BILL FRIST: I believe that we have reached a bipartisan agreement to allow us to pass the bill today so that the House will consider it in order for it to become public law this week.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats, led by Daschle, challenged the new Republican majority. They argued the Republican plan did nothing for workers who already had exhausted their state and federal benefits.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Simply by passing this resolution we are leaving over one million people who have absolutely no recourse - have no assistance whatsoever -- because their benefits have expired. We're leaving them out. This will only address those who are about to see their benefits expired, about one half of the two million people that otherwise would be eligible for these benefits.
KWAME HOLMAN: Suddenly Senators from both parties wanted to speak, all of them at once.
SPOKESPERSON: Would the Senator yield for a question?
KWAME HOLMAN: Finally Bill Frist intervened.
SEN. BILL FRIST: We had been told that this had been cleared on both sides after a lot of hard work. I'm disappointed because the first move out for me after it had been cleared on both sides but I guess that is what I can come to expect. I do hope... I do hope that my colleagues will rethink today's objection and allow us for the reasons that I have said to have this cleared later today.
KWAME HOLMAN: Within an hour however Senators returned to the floor and agreed to a five-month extension of the federal unemployment aid, however, they didn't provide for those who previously had exhausted their benefits, as Democratic leaders had wanted. The House returns tomorrow to act on the bill with the President's signature due by week's end.