Washington As the new Senate opened for business on Tuesday, it offered more story-lines than a nightly telenovela.
In one corner stood Sen. Joe Biden, who soon will resign his Senate seat to assume the vice presidency. Not far away sat Sen. John McCain, who lost to Biden and the man at the top of the ticket, President-elect and former Sen. Barack Obama.
On the other side of the room sat Sen. Hillary Clinton, vanquished by Obama in the Democratic primaries but now likely to leave the Senate soon to serve as his secretary of state. Close by sat Sen. Joe Lieberman, almost tossed out of the Democratic caucus for his support of McCain.
If that wasn’t enough, outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney presided over the opening session. He administered the oath of office for Biden.
But the drama inside the chamber was matched by events beyond it. Earlier in the day, Roland Burris of Illinois attempted to gain admittance to the Senate, but was turned away because of faulty paperwork — Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to certify the governor’s appointment of the replacement for Obama.
And while Senate Democrats have proclaimed political comedian Al Franken winner of a Senate seat in Minnesota in his extended battle with incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, they won’t admit Franken until he, too, has a better legal claim on the post. Results certified Monday showed he won by 225 votes.
All in all, if Franken holds on, Democrats will have taken eight Senate seats away from Republicans, creating a commanding majority. This will increase pressure to deliver on legislation, something that became nearly impossible in the last Congress, wracked with partisan warfare.
“Both parties learned an important lesson over the past two years,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. “When we allow ourselves to retreat into the tired, well-worn trenches of partisanship, when we fail to reach for common ground, when we are unable, in the words of President-elect Obama, to disagree without being disagreeable, we diminish our ability to accomplish real change.”
The new Senate is far from settled in place.
New York’s Senate seat will open up once Clinton resigns. Caroline Kennedy, niece of Sen. Edward Kennedy, is a leading contender. If she isn’t appointed by Gov. David Paterson, it could fall to another child of a famous political family, the state’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo.
Arguably the most powerful woman in Washington, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California was re-elected as speaker Tuesday. After the vote, Pelosi and House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio offered conciliatory words in keeping with Obama’s promise to transcend partisan bickering.
“Obama has expressed a desire to govern from the center,” Boehner said. “When our president extends his hand across the aisle to do what’s right for the country, Republicans will extend ours in return.”
Pelosi emphasized the need to act quickly on economic and other issues. “We need action and we need action now,” she said.
This points to an underlying tension between the parties. Republicans already are concerned that a big economic rescue package will be rushed through without careful scrutiny and bipartisan input.