WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and congressmen-to-be came to Washington Monday as triumphant Democrats and vanquished Republicans focused more on the upcoming change in power than on President Bush's wish list for the final few months of GOP rule.
Orientation meetings for more than 50 incoming House freshmen began at 8:45 a.m. EDT. Dozens of wide-eyed rookie lawmakers were learning the ropes.
"From both parties, we all sort of have the same feeling: 'Wow! Is this really happening,"' said Michael Arcuri, D-N.Y.
The main order of House business planned for Monday was consideration of a free-trade bill with Vietnam, ahead of Bush's scheduled visit there Friday. The Senate was to debate a funding bill for veterans programs.
Jockeying in several House leadership races has exposed divisions among Democratic and GOP factions.
On the Democratic side, politicking is under way for party leadership elections scheduled for Thursday. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Marine Corps veteran and hawk on military issues who became the darling of the anti-war movement after calling for a U.S. pullout from Iraq, is running against Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland to be majority leader.
Pelosi is unchallenged to become speaker. On Sunday, she backed longtime ally Murtha in the majority leader race. Hoyer is an old Pelosi rival dating back to a bitter 2001 leadership race.
House Republicans also have leadership fights. Three lawmakers hope to succeed Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., as the GOP leader. Hastert said last week that he doesn't want to be minority leader.
Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, now No. 2 to Hastert, is favored to get the job, but he faces challenges from Mike Pence, an ambitious conservative from Indiana, and from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, a 12-term Texan mounting a long-shot bid.
The atmosphere for the postelection session will be reminiscent of 1994, when Congress briefly returned after the GOP landslide to ratify a trade bill. Then, there were dozens of the "living dead" — Democratic lawmakers who lost re-election bids — who came back to Washington still smarting over their losses. There are more than 20 defeated Republican incumbents in that situation this year.
The 1994 session was mercifully brief. This year's promises to be longer as Congress deals with unfinished business: nine spending bills; extending already-expired tax breaks; approving trade pacts with Vietnam and Peru; bioterrorism legislation; and a measure giving doctors a reprieve from a scheduled cut in Medicare payments.
This week, the only must-pass item for the House and Senate is a stopgap bill to fund the government. The Senate is likely to pass a measure funding veterans' programs and perhaps some other spending legislation for the budget year that has already begun.
After a two-week break for Thanksgiving , Congress returns the week of Dec. 4 for a session in which the desire of lawmakers to simply go home could threaten the ambitious agenda set by Bush and departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Dread and unhappiness promise to permeate the mood on the GOP side.
"It's just uncomfortable everywhere, in every way," said David Hoppe, former chief of staff to ex-Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "And I don't think anybody's really sort of thought about that part yet."
Bush aides said Sunday that the president will stand firm in his defense of John Bolton, his nominee for U.N. ambassador, despite unwavering opposition from Democrats who view Bolton as too combative for international diplomacy.
"We're putting him up for confirmation," White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said on ABC's "This Week." "I think if he actually was able to get a vote in the full Senate, he would succeed."
The Senate's top Democrat said lawmakers have more pressing matters to deal with this week. "I think we should go to things that we can work together on," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Democrats would like to complete the spending bills this year, rather than having them on their early agenda in 2007.
But that would require assembling one $450 billion-plus bill loaded with special-interest "pork-barrel" projects — the type of measure Republicans don't want to be seen as their last act as a majority. Apparently dead for the year is legislation approving Bush's domestic wiretapping of suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails from abroad without court warrants.
Two House freshmen — Democrat Albio Sires of New Jersey and Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs of Texas — will be sworn into office Monday evening to fill vacant seats.
Sekula-Gibbs' tenure will be brief. She won a special election to fill the Texas seat of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned earlier this year. She lost a write-in campaign in the general election to Democrat Nick Lampson, who will take over the seat in January.
In the Senate, a 10-person freshman class of eight Democrats, one Republican and Democratic-leaning Independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont will take part in an orientation program.