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New Congress Off To Fast Start

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AP
Republicans officially took control of the 108th Congress Tuesday, swearing in new leaders and moving quickly in the Senate to pass a five-month extension of emergency federal unemployment benefits.

The $7 billion jobless assistance package was the first order of business for the Senate under its new majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee. The House was to take up the bill Wednesday, a day before it has to be signed by President Bush to avoid any delay in checks to about 750,000 jobless workers.

The bill had overwhelming bipartisan support but Senate Democrats held it up for two hours, complaining that it left out workers who have exhausted all of the 39 weeks of jobless aid they received under both state and federal programs.

"Simply by passing this resolution we are leaving over 1 million people who have absolutely no recourse because their benefits have expired," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

The extension covers only those workers who have exhausted 26 weeks of state aid but who still had not used all of their 13 weeks of federal aid when the program expired Dec. 28. Also covered will be another 2.5 million workers expected to exhaust their state benefits between now and June 1.

"We should stop playing politics out of the box with this very important issue," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., the No. 3 GOP leader, frustrated at Democratic attempts to expand the bill.

As CBS News Correspondent Bob Schieffer reports, on his first day on the job as new Senate Republican Leader, Frist got what may be his toughest assignment -- finding a way to get the President's Economic plan approved by the Senate and he knows its a tall order.

Because as advertised, the plan is built around huge tax cuts-- $674 billion in cuts over the next ten years. It eliminates taxes on all stock dividends, calls for a $400 per child increase in the tax credit for families with children and speeds up and make permanent cuts in income tax rates for all tax payers.

But Senate action on a unanimous consent motion was the most significant action on the first day of the 108th Congress, in which 11 new senators and 55 new House members took office.

Vice President Cheney called the Senate into order and administered the oath of office to senators four at a time, shaking hands with new senators, including Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Cornyn of Texas.

After their victories in midterm elections last fall, Republicans hold a 51-48-1 majority in the Senate, giving them the control they lost when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican ranks to become an independent in 2001.

The House elected Republican Dennis Hastert to a third term as speaker after House Democrats swore in as their new leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the first woman to the head of a party caucus in either house.

"We will need to test our imaginations," Pelosi said. "We need to govern in new ways beyond the simplistic labels of left and right."

In the House, Republicans will have a 229-205 margin, plus one independent, a six-seat GOP pickup. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was installed as the GOP's No. 2 official as majority leader, replacing the retired Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas.

Mr. Bush had urged Congress to act quickly on jobless benefits. He must have a bill to his desk by Thursday to avoid any disruption in benefit checks to workers.

"Good victory, first bill, passed," Frist said of his first legislative accomplishment in his new role. "They threw a little curveball, but we hit it out of the park."

A heart transplant surgeon before joining the Senate eight years ago, Frist replaced Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who stepped aside as GOP leader in December after racially inflammatory remarks. Daschle kept his post as Democratic leader, and also announced Tuesday that he would not seek his party's nomination for president in 2004.

The unemployment measure was similar one the Senate passed in November when it was under the control of Democrats. But it now makes 13 weeks of federal benefits available until June 1 for people who between now and then exhaust their state benefits, typically 26 weeks. About 95,000 workers exhaust their state benefits each week.

Both houses will also have to vote this week on a resolution to keep federal agencies open through Jan. 31 while lawmakers complete spending bills that were due last Oct. 1. The government's authority to remain open otherwise expires Saturday.

Mr. Bush wants to hold the 11 unfinished spending bills covering the entire government except for the Pentagon to $750.5 billion and push them through Congress as a single package by month's end. Democrats and some Republicans think that amount would shortchange education, domestic security and other programs, and a fight seems certain.

Both parties in Congress face rather low expectations from the public, according to a new CBS News poll, which shows Americans believe they will see little individual benefit from anything lawmakers do.

The survey of a random sample of 902 adults, interviewed by telephone January 4-6, 2003, had a margin of error of three percentage points. It revealed widespread skepticism that Congress would lower taxes, improve health care or reduce fears of terrorism.

People still view both parties in Congress and the president favorably, the poll showed, but are concerned about the economy.

More than half think the economy is in bad shape, and about a third feel it is getting worse. The poll indicates that helping the unemployed is the public's top domestic priority, well ahead of reforming health care or passing a tax cut.