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Largest Freshman Class in Half Century Takes Congress Oath

By Michael Ross
and William J. Eaton

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The largest and most diverse class of freshmen lawmakers since World War II took the oath of office Tuesday as the 103rd Congress convened amid pomp and ceremony and pledges by both Democrats and Republicans to end 12 years of government gridlock.

The festive mood quickly struck a sour note, however, when the House plunged into its first substantive debate of the year over rival Democratic and Republican proposals for changes in the rules governing the way members work.

Democrats were rallying their House majority to turn aside a Republican demand to limit the terms of committee chairmen to six years, while Republicans bitterly protested a Democratic proposal to expand the voting rights of five delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the territories of Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands.

"What a dismal way to begin the Clinton administration!" said Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who argued that the Democratic proposal was unconstitutional. "This is intolerable and we shall not tolerate it," added Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a freshman Republican from Maryland.

The rules change allowing the delegates -- all of whom are Democrats -- to vote for amendments on the House floor was later adopted 249-176 on a straight party-line vote.

The rules squabble did little to dim the mostly festive spirit of the day, however.

A mood of cheerful chaos filled the House as 110 newly-elected members of Congress took the oath of office in a mass swearing-in ceremony administered by House Speaker Thomas J. Foley (D-Wash.). Many of the lawmakers brought their families onto the floor for the occasion and the aisles were filled with scampering children and so much noise that Donald K. Anderson, the exasperated clerk of the House, had to pound his gavel for five minutes to call everyone to order.

Amid the uproar, Rep. Peter J. Viscloskey (D-Ind.), entertained two of his children by reading the book "Aladdin" to them. Other children squirmed in their seats, or used the historic occasion as an opportunity to fall asleep.

When the newly elected members raised their right hands and swore to uphold the Constitution, many of the youngsters jumped up and raised their hands as well. It was a sea of faces that included many more blacks, Hispanics and women than ever before -- a diversity that leaders of both parties predicted would have a powerful impact on the agenda of the new Congress, whose first legislative business is expected to be passage of a family and medical leave act adopted last year but vetoed by President Bush.