Jubilant Republicans, claiming a sweeping public mandate to reduce the scope and reach of government, on Wednesday assumed the mantle of leadership in both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years and embarked on a 100-day campaign to dismantle the legacy of decades of Democratic rule.
“Let the great debate begin,” said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., as he turned over the speaker’s gavel “with resignation but with resolve” to an exultant Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who was a principal architect of the GOP’s Nov. 8 electoral victory.
Gingrich, wielding a new and bigger gavel cut from an ancient Georgia walnut tree by a constituent, immediately got down to business, plunging the 104th Congress into what he called “the hardest-working opening session in American history.”
Within hours of the noon call to order, House members began voting on a series of rules changes that will, among other things, abolish 28 congressional panels, lay off more than 600 staff members and require a 60 percent majority vote to raise income tax rates.
As midnight approached, the House was moving toward consideration of its first piece of legislation, a measure that would make Congress abide by the same laws it imposes on everyone else - but only if the Senate goes along.
While Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., stuck to a more traditional first-day agenda of largely procedural matters, Gingrich led an opening-day assault designed to demonstrate that Republicans are serious about seizing the reins of government and using their new power to change Congress and shrink the government.
In yielding their majority status, Democrats expressed respect for the will of voters and a desire to work with the new Republican majority in any areas where the two parties’ political principles coincide. Indeed, the Democrats jumped aboard the Republican bandwagon in great numbers, voting overwhelmingly to adopt several of the new rules proposed by the GOP.
The conciliatory language was echoed by Gingrich in his inaugural address in the speaker’s chair, imbuing the historic transfer of power with an unexpectedly friendly aura.
“I know I’m a very partisan figure,” Gingrich conceded in a 35-minute speech that blended personal observations with historical lessons and included an appeal to fellow Republicans to display compassion along with their budget-cutting zeal.
“If each of us will reach out prayerfully and try to genuinely understand the other, if we’ll recognize that in this building we symbolize America writ small, that we have an obligation to talk with each other, then I think a year from now we can look on the 104th as a truly amazing institution,” said Gingrich, noted more for his fiery partisan rhetoric than for his consensus-building skills.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, introduced Senate Bill One to curb federal unfunded mandates Wednesday. His bill requires Congress to pay for any requirements it makes of state or local governments. Laws that were not fully funded by Congress would expire.
Kempthorne presided over the Senate’s opening session as president of the Senate from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday. Members of the majority party serve as Senate president.
While the Senate officially enjoyed equal billing with the House in the opening activities, the spotlight was clearly on Gingrich, the first Republican to serve as speaker since Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts left the post in 1955. Senate leader Dole acknowledged as much by leaving the Senate Chamber at one point and walking across the Capitol to spend a few minutes observing Gingrich in action.
Noticeably absent from the opening-day agenda was President Clinton, who returned to Washington from Arkansas in the afternoon but did not venture down Pennsylvania Avenue to participate in the congressional activities. The president is scheduled to meet privately with congressional leaders of both parties today.
“We’re starting the 104th Congress,” Gingrich said in his opening address. “… And I don’t care what your ethnic background, what your ideology, I don’t care whether you’re younger or older, I don’t care whether you were born in America or you’re a naturalized citizen; every one of the 435 people have equal standing because their citizens freely sent them, and their voice should be heard, and they should have a right to participate.”
But after a morning of prayers, speeches, handshakes and appeals for bipartisanship, it quickly became clear that interparty tranquility would rule neither the day, nor the two-year legislative session. Lawmakers quickly engaged each other in heated argument, pitting Republicans bent on decisive action against Democrats wary of the GOP’s policy prescriptions and watchful for slights by the new majority.
Within moments of the session’s formal opening ceremonies, defeated Republican Senate candidate Michael Huffington appeared before the Senate to allege “irregularities and fraud” in the election of his opponent, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urging the Republican majority to reserve the right to unseat her.
House Democrats bridled at what they called a “gag rule” on Republicans’ ambitious opening-day agenda of rules changes. But California Rep. David Dreier dismissed the charge as “absolutely preposterous,” and declared that Republicans made their first-day proceedings more open than any in recent history.
The House rule changes, which take effect immediately, could profoundly influence future deliberations in the lower chamber. Besides abolishing three full committees, culling 28 subcommittees and cutting committee staffs by one-third, the changes will bar lawmakers from voting in committee proceedings even when they are absent - a practice that analysts contend has shifted significant powers to committee chairmen.
Another important rule change will limit the terms of committee chairmen to six years, and the House speaker to eight years. Republicans call the measure a “down payment” on comprehensive term limits they will seek for all lawmakers, and analysts predict the measure could have the effect of shifting power from the oncepowerful committee barons of Capitol Hill to the speaker’s office.
The most controversial rule change is one that will require a three-fifths majority in the House for approval of any income tax increases. While Republicans declared the measure would brake future efforts to raise income taxes, Democrats called it unconstitutional.
Republicans prevailed on the measure in a 279-152 vote that ran largely along party lines.
And so began the historic 104th Congress.
But Democrats made clear they intend to counter Republicans, seeking to split the majority and woo public sentiment where they can. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., wasted no time in introducing five bills designed to position Senate Democrats as moderate champions of the middle class.
The Democrat initiatives include such hot-button items as campaign finance reform, restrictions on government services for unwed mothers, and limited health-care reform designed to protect familites against the loss of insurance.
MEMO: 1. Cut in the Spokane edition. 2. See sidebar that ran with this story only in the Spokane edition under the headline: Rule changes