After 12 years of Republican dominance, Democrats took control of both the House and Senate Thursday on the opening day of the 110th Congress. In one of the first orders of business, Nancy Pelosi was elected the country’s first female speaker of the House.
Karen Haas, clerk of House of Representatives: "The tellers agree in their tallies that the total number of votes cast is 435, of which the honorable Nancy Pelosi of the state of California has received 233. The honorable John Boehner of the state of Ohio has received 202. Therefore the honorable Nancy Pelosi of the state is duly elected speaker of the House for the 110th Congress, having received a majority of the votes cast."
Pelosi later outlined the Democrats’ ambitious plan to increase the minimum wage, allow the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients and increase federal support for stem cell research. She also called for a new direction in Iraq.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "It is the responsibility of the president to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security, a plan that promotes stability in the region and a plan that allows us to responsibly redeploy our troops."
In the Senate, Harry Reid was elected majority leader. Hours after the Democrats took control, the House passed what The Washington Post described as the broadest ethics and lobbying revision since the Watergate era. Only Republican Dan Burton of Indiana voted against the measure.
Among the incoming lawmakers was Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison — the first Muslim member of Congress. Ellison was sworn in using a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson. More on the first day of Congress after headlines.
At the White House, President Bush announced Thursday he’ll outline a new strategy for Iraq next week.
President Bush: "I’m — I’ll be ready to outline a strategy that will help the Iraqis achieve the objective of a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself sometime next week. I’ve still got consultations to go through. Whatever decision I make, though, will be all aimed at achieving our objective."
The administration’s plans for Iraq are believed to center around sending an additional 20,000 U.S. troops. As it moves toward a troop increase, the Bush administration is making a series of replacements in top diplomatic and military personnel. On Thursday, the White House announced plans to nominate Admiral William Fallon to replace General John Abizaid at Central Command. Meanwhile, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has been tapped to replace Gen. George Casey as the top military commander in Iraq. Both Casey and Abizaid have voiced concerns about a troop surge in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad — the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq — will be nominated to replace John Bolton as the U.S. representative to the United Nations.
In another personnel change, the Bush administration has announced the departure of White House counsel Harriet Miers. Miers was nominated to replace Sandra Day O’Conor on the Supreme Court in 2005 but withdrew her candidacy after opposition from the Republican Senate. The Bush administration reportedly decided to replace Miers over concerns she was ill-equipped to defend against anticipated challenges from the new Democrat-controlled Congress. A Republican adviser to the administration told The Washington Post: "The White House knew they needed to get a tough street fighter — that’s what this is about." Justice Department officials have already met with counterparts at other agencies to map out possible legal strategies on congressional demands for information on issues including the treatment of detainees and the White House response to Hurricane Katrina.
In Iraq, the Iraqi government rejected U.N. protest Thursday and announced plans to proceed with the execution of two of Saddam Hussein’s co-defendants. Hussein’s half-brother — former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim — and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, were sentenced along with Saddam Hussein for their roles in the killing of more than 100 Iraqi Shia in the town of Dujail in 1982. Their executions have been postponed until after the Eid holiday, which ends in Iraq on Saturday. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has called on Iraq to spare the defendants’ lives. On Thursday, Arbour made a broader appeal to address prison conditions in Iraq.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour: "I’m calling for an international inquiry into the conditions of detentions in Iraq, in large part because of the recent very troubling allegation of widespread use of torture, but also for many other reasons, including the number of detainees, which seem to be considerable by any standards, and indications that some people remain in detention, even though there’s been an order for their release. I think there’s very systemic widespread and very serious concern regarding detention conditions in Iraq."
In the Occupied Territories, four Palestinians were killed Thursday in an Israeli raid on the West Bank. Meanwhile in Gaza, violence between the two main Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas continued today with the killings of at least six people. Earlier today, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced a new agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas to stop the violence.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh: "First, rejecting the use of violence as a way to settle internal differences and condemning anyone who would resort to such a method and adopting dialogue as a sole method. Second, withdrawing all gunmen from the streets and deploy police forces to keep law and order."
Meanwhile, more than two dozen journalists held a vigil in Gaza Thursday for the release of kidnapped Peruvian photographer Jaime Razuri. Friends and colleagues also held a vigil in Razuri’s hometown of Lima. In Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum condemned the kidnapping.
Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum: "We are against all types of violence and terrorism and kidnapping of all of our guests, including the journalists, who are our cooperation between us and all over the world. This type of violence and kidnapping of the journalist is against Palestinian people and against Palestinian victory and against establishment of security."
Back in the United States, privacy advocates are warning over a new presidential decree that asserts White House authority to open U.S. mail without court-approved warrants. In a signing statement attached to a postal reform bill last month, President Bush said the administration will interpret a section of the law to grant itself the authority to open sealed mail in the case of emergencies or foreign intelligence matters. The White House says it is not expanding its powers but clarifying existing laws. But privacy advocates say current laws already allow the opening of mail believed to contain an imminent threat. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, said: "The administration is playing games about warrants. If they are not claiming new powers, then why did they need to issue a signing statement?"
In other news, the head of the nation’s nuclear weapons program has resigned over at least two security breakdowns at key facilities. Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was reprimanded last year after files containing the personal information of more than 1,500 workers were stolen from a facility in New Mexico. A replacement for Brooks has not been announced.
And Army Specialist Suzanne Swift has been released from military confinement. Swift was arrested and confined to base at Fort Lewis in Washington last month. She was charged with going absent without leave after her charges of sexual harassment and assault went unaddressed by the military. Swift refused to return to Iraq, where she says she was sexually harassed by a commanding officer.