House Democrats Push for Speedy Ethics Reforms

The 110th Congress will be sworn in Thursday, giving Democrats control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years and setting the stage for the new majority to tackle a host of issues in a fast-paced legislative agenda.

"What we want to do in the first 100 hours is do exactly what we promised the American people that we would do and that we debated over the last six months ... taking America in a new direction," said incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Thursday's activities begin with the scripted pageantry that marks the beginning of a new session and the handover of power. At noon the House clerk will call the body to order. The members officially elect their leaders and they take the oath of office.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving member of the House and incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will swear in new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi then will address the House and nation in a speech.

Watch FOX News Channel for live coverage of the convening of the 110th Congress.

In mid-afternoon, Pelosi will administer the oath of office to the rest of the representatives. Afterward, members will pose for individual photos re-enacting their taking the oath of office.

Of note, Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim elected to Congress, is reportedly planning to take his photograph swearing his loyalty to the U.S. House on a Koran once owned by former President Thomas Jefferson. Radio host talk show Dennis Prager criticized Ellison for not using the Christian Bible, which Prager said is the traditional book used by U.S. lawmakers to take their oaths.

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Leading up to the opening session, Democrats this week distributed their latest outline of their "first 100 hours" agenda, which puts ethics and open government reforms at the top of their priority list to accomplish. The agenda also includes adopting the remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, raising the minimum wage, promoting stem cell research and renewable fuels and reducing Medicare prescription prices and student loan costs.

Over in the Senate, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the first change of the new session will be a five-day work week, up by an average two days per week over the last session.

Reid said the Senate will not be following the House schedule, though many of the same priorities will be addressed. In the first week alone, the Senate will deal with ethics and lobbying reform, an increase in the minimum wage, changes to the Medicare prescription drug program and enactment of all the Sept. 11 commission recommendations.

"Our efforts are going to be to work in a bipartisan basis ... to solve the problems of the American people," Reid said Thursday after a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the new Senate minority leader.

Democrats are expected to introduce a sweeping package of ethics reforms that includes more limits on lobbying and congressional travel and more transparency on obscure procedures that allow power to concentrate in the hands of a few.

"The first thing, of course, we're going to do as you know is adopt rules which will provide for integrity, civility and fiscal responsibility in the House of Representatives," Hoyer said.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the incoming chairwoman of the Rules Committee, which determines procedure for bills going to the House floor, is sponsoring the package. Among other items, it contains proposals to open up debate on lawmakers' home-state projects, known as earmarks but more frequently decried as pork-barrel spending.

"We're going to restore openness, integrity and honesty in Congress, and we'll hand the keys of the government back to the American people," Slaughter said in a press conference Wednesday.

"The status quo has permitted some members of Congress, with no transparency and accountability, to provide favors to special friends through earmarked special projects — putting special interests ahead of the public interest. The American people deserve to know who is sponsoring earmarks to begin to stop the cases of flagrant abuse of earmarks," the Democratic materials say.

In the House, Democrats need 218 votes to push through legislation. They now hold a 233-201 seat majority over Republicans — Florida's 13th District is still being recounted.

The Democrats' ethics reform plans include:

• Ban gifts and meals from lobbyists and organizations that hire them, and require members of Congress and their staffs to pay market price for tickets to sports and other entertainment events;

• Ban members of Congress from accepting lobbyist-paid or arranged travel; No campaign or taxpayer money can be used to pay for travel on non-commercial, corporate jets;

• Require certification and pre-approval for travel that is paid for by groups that fall outside the lobbying restrictions;

• Make sure time is set aside to read a bill before a vote occurs and prevent members from holding votes open long enough to rally enough support for the bill to pass, a tactic used often by Republican Tom DeLay when he was House majority leader;

• Require earmarks disclosures and members to certify that such earmarks do not benefit themselves or their spouses.

Last year, a scandal-rich atmosphere ripe for reform led House Republicans to pass a resolution to tackle earmark questions by requiring members who add earmarks to identify themselves. Every bill also was to have a list of earmarks clearly outlined in it. The resolution applied only to the existing congressional session and has since expired. Despite a number of other bills, broader reform efforts failed in Congress.

Addressing reporters Wednesday, Democrats said their proposals were shaped largely by conduct of Republicans. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff shaped the travel portion of the ban, for instance.

"It was clear that we wanted to prevent the kind of trips that Tom DeLay and (former Ohio Republican Rep.) Bob Ney took where, in auspices that they were taking a fact-finding mission, and they only thing they packed was their golf clubs," Emanuel said.

Republicans have said they are open to bipartisan cooperation on the matter but have expressed doubts about Democrats' willingness to cooperate despite early pledges to do so.

Slaughter's Republican vice-chairman on the Rules Committee issued a letter of caution to Slaughter on Wednesday after reports surfaced that Democrats might be easing off their pledge for more government openness and cooperation.

"Based on press reports, it appears your party is choosing to share details of the rules package for the 110th [Congress] with the press, but not with Republican members. As you and your colleagues have said repeatedly in the past, members of both parties deserve an opportunity to review what they will be voting on," wrote California Rep. David Dreier, who is giving up the committee chairmanship.

In a press conference Wednesday, incoming House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., agreed

"We hope that the spirit of what they do is more what they said they'd do," he said.

Democrats defended their actions against the Republican attacks. Slaughter said that none of the ethics reform proposals are a surprise. However, she said that the bill would not go through her committee because it is not officially constituted yet. Therefore, it will go directly to the House floor.

"Most of the members of the House of Representatives are on record already on practically everything we'd bring up, because this is not a Johnny-come-lately thing," Slaughter said.

President Bush on Wednesday also delivered remarks saying he wants to see earmark reform. He renewed his call for a line-item veto, which he said would help to rein in spending.

"Congress needs to adopt real reform that requires full disclosure of the sponsors, the costs, the recipients and the justifications for every earmark. Congress needs to stop the practice of concealing earmarks in so-called report language. And Congress needs to cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half," Bush said.

Slaughter was readying to outline the House ethics plans for reporters on Wednesday, but the first attempt at least was interrupted by chants from a group led by anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan.

When Democrats reconvened after the protesters left, Emanuel offered to investigate activities relating to the conduct of the Iraq war, but didn't pledge to end it.

"The most important thing that a Congress can do is begin to hold the hearings and ask the questions that our constituents are asking and finally demand the answers that have been missing from this policy in Iraq," Emanuel said.

"We will work on that to the best of our ability in a bipartisan manner but we will not divert our attention from what needs to be accomplished in this country," Reid said.

FOX News' Jim Mills and Greg Simmons contributed to this report.