WASHINGTON – House Democrats on Thursday spent the first hours of the 110th Congress pushing through a campaign-pledge legislative package, starting first with a proposal to revamp ethics and lobbying rules.
"The American people told us they expected us to work together for fiscal responsibility, with the highest ethical standard and with civility and bipartisanship," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, addressing the House after being sworn in Thursday.
Shortly afterward, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the newly seated chairwoman of the House Rules Committee introduced the first portion of the new reforms that constitute the ethics package.
The measures come in the form of House rule changes that do not need approval of the Senate, and include 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 House began debate on the proposal, passing the first of five portions of the ethics rule changes by an overwhelming margin of 423-0 votes, with 12 members not voting. The first portion, however, was likely the least controversial because it was a verbatim copy of the rules from the recently ended 109th Congress. Debate on the remaining portions was expected to last through the evening.
Early quibbles arose on the House floor over the timing of the packages.
"I don't believe they go far enough," said Rep. David Dreier of California, the top-ranked Republican on the House Rules Committee, who also said he was annoyed by the fact that they didn't get their copies of the rule changes until late Wednesday.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., quickly shot back: "His party was in control for 12 years and there has been ample room for change... we are going to end the culture of corruption today."
The Senate also introduced its first 10 bills, including a counterpart bill to the House ethics bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, has said that the Senate will not follow the same break-neck pace the House has set for itself, a broad agenda that House leaders have pledged to complete in the first 100 working hours.
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Leading up to the opening session, Democrats this week distributed the 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 while ending what Democrats saw as giveaways to the energy industry, and reducing Medicare prescription prices and student loan costs.
Over in the Senate, Reid 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. He said that he and McConnell would be co-sponsoring the Senate counterpart to the ethics legislation planned to move in the House.
"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 Wednesday.
Among other items, the House ethics bill 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 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.
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.
Democrats also have pledged to adhere to a pay-as-you-go budgeting system that would not allow a tax cut without a budget reduction, or a budget increase without a tax increase.
While Republicans complained they were being left out of the discussion, Democrats on Wednesday defended their actions.
"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.
The legislative action followed Thursday's historic vote to name Pelosi as the first female speaker of the House. By default, the move makes her next in the presidential line of succession after the vice president.
The leadership elections were part of a day full of pageantry marking the convening of the 110th Congress, in which the Senate's new members also were sworn in and leaders chosen.
In the House, Pelosi, 66, received a standing ovation after being elected speaker.
Taking the gavel from the new House Minority Leader John Boehner, Pelosi, frequently interrupted by loud applause, told members: "I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership not partisanship, and look forward to working ... with you on behalf of the American people."
Pelosi's rise to the speakership began in 2004 when she was elected by her fellow Democrats to be House minority leader. After Democrats won control of the House in the Nov. 7 election, they unanimously chose for the top spot the Catholic mother of five from a Baltimore political family. Thursday marked the beginning of her 11th term in Congress.
While both the House and Senate were convening at the same time, the divide in the Capitol between the two chambers is often much more than geographic. The House of Representatives, often referred to as the "People's House," operates more with arm-twisting and peer pressure than the smaller Senate, which is considered a more deliberative body built on compromise and consultation.
With the House only needing simple majorities of 218 votes to pass legislation, the Senate often must surmount the filibuster-proof 60 vote threshold to pass controversial bills, requiring closer cross-aisle relations than in the House.
Those differing styles presented themselves even before Congress convened as top Republican and Democratic senators appeared before cameras to pat each others' backs while House lawmakers threw around charges of exclusion and partisanship.
In front of a group of reporters gathered near the Senate chambers just after a meeting of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Reid and McConnell stood side by side and pledged renewed cooperation.
"Sen. McConnell and I believe this is a new day in Washington, that our efforts are going to be to work in a bipartisan basis, in an open fashion, to solve the problems of the American people," Reid said.
"I think Harry's got it right. This opportunity we had in the Old Senate Chamber was a chance for many of our members to express some of their quiet frustrations that we get past the level of partisanship that we've witnessed in recent years and develop stronger personal relationships, as well as work across party aisles," McConnell added.
On the House side, members did their part to pledge cooperation, but those claims were clouded by Republican charges that Democrats already aren't living up to their campaign promises.
"I think they're getting off to a bit of a rough start," said incoming House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
"In 1994 when we took control of the House, 12 years ago, it wasn't that — we wanted to treat Democrats the way we had asked to be treated. And, frankly, that's what we did. What we really expect out of the Democrats is for them to treat us as they would like to have been treated," Boehner said.
But he added, "Republicans on Capitol Hill want to work with Democrats to deal with the issues that the American people sent us here to deal with."
A few minutes later, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland called Boehner his friend and denied that his party was trying to shut down Republicans in the first 100 hours of Congress, the time frame Democrats imposed on themselves to enact a list of changes.
"I don't think we want to shut them down in the first 100 hours. 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," which includes the ethics and fiscal reform, homeland security changes, increasing the minimum wage and other changes.
FOX News' Jim Mills and Greg Simmons contributed to this report.