The Democrats are back: Pelosi opens a new era in Washington

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The Independent US

At the stroke of noon yesterday, a new political era opened in Washington as jubilant Democrats assumed control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1995 - a takeover the party hopes will be springboard for the recapture of the White House in two years' time.

"The Democrats are back," proclaimed Nancy Pelosi, the newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 100th Congress, the first woman to hold the third-ranking post under the constitution, a proverbial two heartbeats away from the presidency. "Today we make history. Today we change the direction of our country," she beamed, as she was formally installed to lead the House, where Democrats hold a solid 233 to 202 seat majority.

The guard changed, too, on the other side of Capitol Hill, where the taciturn but tough-dealing Harry Reid took over as majority leader in the Senate, in which the Democrats hold a 51 to 49 edge (at least as long as the critically ill Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who underwent major brain surgery last month, remains in office).

In the House, there were thunderous cheers from Democrats after Ms Pelosi - resplendent in burgundy suit and trademark pearl necklace, surrounded by her children and holding her youngest grandchild, Paul in her arms - was elected in a traditional hour-long roll-call vote. But proceedings in the Senate were far more demure - low key and typically clubby.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in his constitutional role as President of the Senate, swore in the 33 members elected in the 7 November midterm elections. They are a notable group - among them Hillary Clinton who, if her presumed plans bear fruit, would be moving to the White House in a couple of years, and the indefatigable Robert Byrd of North Virginia. As the oldest member of the chamber, the 89-year-old Mr Byrd will not only become President Pro Tempore of the Senate, third in line to the presidency after Mr Cheney and the newly enthroned Ms Pelosi. He is also now the longest-serving senator in US history. He was first elected in 1958 and is now embarking on his ninth six-year term.

In her words after taking the Speaker's gavel, Ms Pelosi promised to foster "partnership not partisanship" in a bid to build a co-operative relationship with the Republican White House in the last two years of President George Bush's term. But she is kicking off the new Democratic era on Capitol Hill with a "100 hour" legislative blitz of heavily Democratic measures, including an increase in the minimum wage, an expansion of embryonic stem-cell research, and a tightening of ethics rules over congressmen's dealings with lobbyists.

Bills will be introduced on a daily basis over the next fortnight and - given the majority's total control of House proceedings - immediately voted through. But there is no guarantee they will become law, given the cumbersome ways of the Senate, and the ever-present threat of a Bush veto.

Bipartisanship, moreover, could be stretched to the limit as soon as next week, when Mr Bush is likely to announce his new Iraq policy, including the dispatch of 20,000 or more troops to the country, a strategy strongly opposed by most Democrats in both the House and Senate.

Thereafter, the congressional session will be increasingly overshadowed by the 2008 presidential race, which starts in earnest over the next couple of months. At least seven senators in addition to Ms Clinton, as well as two members of the House, have either announced or are mulling runs. If the Congress of Ms Pelosi and Mr Reid performs well, it can only enhance the prospects of a Democrat returning to the White House after an eight- year interval.