WASHINGTON – The new Congress opened for business at the stroke of noon on Tuesday, eager to join President-elect Barack Obama in tackling the worst economic crisis in generations. Democrats celebrated last fall's election gains in the House and Senate.
Vice President Dick Cheney called the Senate to order at midday, then began the ceremonial duties of swearing in 32 senators who triumphed in November elections.
Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois was not among them — informed he would not be seated because his paperwork was not in order. He pledged a lawsuit, the latest twist in a political drama that began when he was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with having attempted to sell the seat.
Across the Capitol, Lorraine C. Miller, clerk of the House, rapped the opening gavel, prelude to a day of ceremony highlighted by Nancy Pelosi's re-election as speaker. "We need action and we need action now," she said minutes after taking the gavel, symbol of her authority.
Democrats looked ahead to two years of increased strength after picking up seats in both houses — at least seven in the Senate and 21 in the House. With their gains — as well as with Obama in the White House after Jan. 20 — they looked forward to an agenda of fixing the economy, ending the war in Iraq, expanding health care and more.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid celebrated the approaching end of the Bush administration in remarks on the Senate floor that also called for bipartisan cooperation.
"We are ready to answer the call of the American people by putting the past eight years behind us and delivering the change that our country desperately needs," he said.
And yet, he told Republicans, "we are in this together," when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis and more.
The day was heavy on ceremony.
The Senate galleries were crowded as Cheney administered the oath to senators in groups of four. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware was among them, taking the oath of office for a seat that he has held for more than three decades, and will relinquish in a matter of days to become Obama's vice president.
The atmosphere in the House was family-friendly as children, grandchildren and other relatives joined lawmakers in the large chamber, lit for television.
Apart from Biden, at least two lawmakers won't be there for long. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., was nominated as secretary of labor in the Obama administration, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is departing Congress to become Secretary of State.
For the lawmakers just settling in, and the veterans returning, the work was already well under way. Aides to Obama and senior congressional officials have been at work for weeks crafting an economic stimulus plan that could reach $1 trillion or more. Tax cuts, federal spending, aid to the states, all designed to inject cash into an economy where consumer spending has plummeted, manufacturing withered and job losses grown.
Obama spent much of the day Monday in Congress, meeting with leaders in both parties and pledging to consider ideas advanced by Republicans.
They, in turn, said they believed his pledge of bipartisanship.
Amid the ceremony, Burris was at the center of a remarkable piece of political theater.
Informed in advance he would not be seated, he traveled to the Capitol, met inside with Senate Secretary Nancy Erickson, then emerged in a downpour to tell reporters, "My credentials were not in order, I will not be accepted, I will not be seated."
He pledged a lawsuit to win the seat.
Said Reid: "If Mr. Burris takes possession of valid credentials, the United States Senate will proceed in a manner that is respectful to Mr. Burris while ensuring that there is no cloud of doubt over the appointment to fill this seat."
One other Senate seat was in limbo as the new Congress convened.
Democrat Al Franken holds a 225-vote lead over former Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, a result certified on Monday by the state Canvassing Board. He has not yet received a certificate of election, and with Republicans threatening to protest, Democrats made no attempt to seat him.
In a bit of housekeeping, Democrats also were repealing the six-year term limit for committee chairman. It was a legacy of the Republican Revolution that swept through Congress in 1994, and in erasing it, Democrats evinced confidence in the strength of their majority status.