WASHINGTON (AP) — Majority Republicans flexed their muscles at the dawn of a new Congress yesterday, approving ethics standards opposed by House Democrats and threatening to change Senate rules if needed to force votes on President Bush’s court appointees.

Eston Bond
The new Congress convened for the first time yesterday. Members approved ethics standards opposed by House Democrats. (AP PHOTO)

“In this Congress, big plans will stir men’s blood,” pledged Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, re-elected speaker. He vowed to spend the next two years pursuing key elements of Bush’s ambitious second-term agenda.

He mentioned Social Security, including Bush’s call to allow individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes on their own, as well as energy and transportation bills and a measure to crack down on lawsuits.

Hastert will preside over a House majority bigger by three as a result of the Nov. 2 elections. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee leads a group of 55 Republicans — four more than the GOP had in the old Congress.

The opening gavels fell at noon — the hour commanded by the Constitution — for a day of pomp and controversy.

Hastert administered the oath of office to 41 new House members as well as the veterans. Across the Capitol, Vice President Dick Cheney swore in the 34 senators elected on Nov. 2. Among them were seven GOP freshmen who helped expand the GOP majority and leave Democrats with their smallest representation in seven decades.

House Democrats criticized the GOP ethics rules in the first partisan fight of the Congress, but Republicans prevailed on a vote of 220-195.

Democratic prospects in the dispute diminished markedly following a series of concessions blessed by Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Monday night.

“The proposed changes are destructive and unethical,” evidence of Republican arrogance and pettiness, charged Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-N.Y.), looking across the House floor to the Republicans, said, “The lesson we have today is you have the power and you break the rules and you can change them.”

Specifically, the Democrats focused fire on a proposal to require a majority vote of the ethics panel for any complaint to be pursued. Membership of the panel consists of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, meaning that lawmakers of either party could unify and block action.

Current rules provide for an automatic investigation of a complaint unless the full committee decides on an alternative approach. That procedure, in effect since 1997, replaced a different requirement for a majority vote that had been in effect for many years.

DeLay said the Democratic criticism was the first of what will become “countless personal attacks against the integrity of the majority and ultimately against the House.”

In the Senate, Frist announced he would seek confirmation in February of “one of the president’s very capable, qualified and experienced judicial nominees.”

Bush recently renominated 20 candidates for the federal bench, many of whose confirmations were blocked by Democrats in the previous Congress.

“I seek cooperation, not confrontation,” Frist said. “Cooperation simply means voting judicial nominees brought to the floor up or down.” He said that if Democrats don’t filibuster judicial nominees “it will then be unnecessary to change Senate procedures.”

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