New U.S. Congress Convenes Amid Controversy

Burris speaks into microphones at podium (AP Images)Economy to be top legislative priority in first weeks

photo left: Roland Burris speaks to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

By Michelle Austein Brooks

Washington (RushPRNews) 01/08/09-— When the 111th Congress began January 6, two men who hope to be their states’ new senators were absent.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that a new Congress convene at noon on January 3 in each odd-numbered year, unless the previous Congress passes a law designating a different date. The last Congress designated January 6 for this Congress.

Much of the day was spent taking care of routine business. Nancy Pelosi was easily re-elected as speaker of the House and then administered the oath of office to all members of the House of Representatives.

All newly elected members of the Senate, including those who just won re-elPelosi at speaker’s chair (AP Images)ection, took an oath of office administered by Vice President Cheney. The U.S. vice president serves as president of the Senate.

CONTROVERSY IN THE SENATE

The 111th Senate began with empty seats from Illinois and Minnesota. While vacancies are common in the U.S. Congress, the circumstances surrounding these were unusual.

Soon after Barack Obama won the presidency, he resigned his Senate seat. Illinois state law requires the state governor, Rod Blagojevich in this case, to appoint a successor. The successor would have to run for re-election in the next general election, which is in November 2010.

Blagojevich, who is currently under investigation for allegations of corruption, has appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the Senate seat. Blagojevich has been accused of trying to solicit bribes for the Senate appointment, but there is no evidence that Burris was involved in such an incident.

Many lawmakers in Illinois and in Congress said they would view any senator appointed by Blagojevich as tainted because of the corruption allegations. Among them was Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who refused to sign a document confirming Blagojevich’s appointment.

Senate rules require an incoming senator to present a certification from their secretary of state. When Burris arrived at the Capitol without the document, the secretary of the Senate informed him he would not be accepted. The secretary of the Senate oversees many of the legislative body’s administrative functions.

Burris said he was “advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted and I would not be seated and I will not be permitted on the floor.”

“I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step will be,” Burris said outside the Capitol. His attorneys said that while they consider legal options, they will seek to discuss the situation with the Senate’s leadership.

The Senate also opted not to seat Minnesota’s Al Franken, who Minnesota election officials believe won the state’s extremely close contest.  A recently concluded weeks-long hand recount of 2.9 million ballots found the comedian-turned-politician won by about 225 votes.

Republican incumbent Norm Coleman has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s finding. The initial Election Day count had found Coleman ahead by about 200 votes. Minnesota law prevents the state from certifying the results during Coleman’s lawsuit.

“We understand the sensitivity on both sides to an election this close,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. He said he hopes Coleman will concede and Franken can be certified as the state’s winner soon.

There is currently one vacancy in the House, as Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel recently resigned his seat to become Obama’s White House chief of staff. There will be other vacancies as well — Joe Biden will resign his Senate seat when he becomes vice president and members of both Houses will leave to serve in Obama’s Cabinet.

THE ECONOMY IS A PRIORITY FOR THE 111th CONGRESS

The 111th Congress will review and try to enact legislation on a wide range of topics including security, health care, education and the environment. But leaders in both the legislative and incoming executive branches have clearly stated their top goal is the economy.

When Obama takes the oath of office January 20, the United States will be entering a relatively rare period of “unified government,” in which the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate all are controlled by the same party, in this case the Democrats.

But not all Democrats vote the same on all issues, so Obama will still have to work with Republicans to see his legislative priorities become a reality.

Obama and Biden met with congressional leaders of both parties January 5 to discuss Obama’s goals for an economic stimulus package. Saying “the people’s business can’t wait,” Obama encouraged Congress to begin work on passing legislation for him to sign soon after he takes office.

Following the meeting, Pelosi said, “We pledge to work together in a bipartisan way, with great civility, with great fiscal discipline. And I know the debate will be spirited.”

For more on the new U.S. Congress see the House of Representatives and Senate Web sites.