WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 -- Republicans on Wednesday took center stage on Capitol Hill, opening the 104th Congress by jubilantly swearing in the GOP members whose November victories gave them majority control on Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years and then immediately diving into their campaign commitment to shrink the government. 'This is a historic moment,' Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told a cheering House chamber as he became the first Republican speaker in 40 years and the first Georgian elected speaker in more than 100 years. The day on Capitol Hill, while celebrated by 84 newly elected Republican senators and congressmen and their families, belonged first to Gingrich, the nine-term incumbent who helped engineer their victories by organizing and publicizing the now widely recognized 'Contract with America' series of campaign promises. But the Contract also meant a quick end to the celebrating, as the House followed its ceremonial and constitutional duties on the first day of its session by taking immediate votes on the eight reforms of congressional operations that the Contract promised for enactment on the very first day of the 104th Congress. The opening session of the House began at noon and was expected to last until at least midnight. Senate GOP leader Bob Dole, who reclaimed the majority leadership post he and his party lost in 1986, opened proceedings in the upper chamber by outlining the ways Senate Republicans also would meet voter demands for a smaller government. 'On behalf of all of us elected to serve,' Dole proclaimed to a chamber populated by 11 new senators, all Republicans, and most of the 89 returning incumbents, and surrounded in its visitor galleries by scores of their family members, 'I thank the American people for their trust and their call to action.
'America has reconnected us with their hopes for a nation made more free by demanding a government that is more limited,' Dole said. The nationwide GOP sweep in November converted a 256-178 Democratic majority in the House and a 56-44 Democratic advantage in the Senate into Republican majorities of 230-204 in the House and 53-47 in the Senate. The surviving Democrats in Congress, forced to start playing second- fiddle inside an institution they long ruled, came out Wednesday on Opening Day with a smorgasbord of criticisms, alternative legislative plans, offers of cooperation and words of humble acceptance of their fate. 'Senator Dole has given me an office, and I'm very grateful for that,' the new Senate Democratic leader, Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, jokingly told reporters during a pre-session news conference. 'It's 4-by-4 and it stops at every floor, but I'll take it.' His House Democratic counterpart, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, touched off one of the heartiest GOP ovations of the formal House session when he passed the speaker's gavel to Gingrich with the pronouncement that, 'I hereby end 40 years of Democratic control of this House.' But Daschle also showed Democrats would be combative. In announcing his top legislative priorities, he ridiculed Gingrich's repeated praise of orphanages as portrayed in the classic Spencer Tracy film about Boys' Town. 'Anyone who thinks a 1938 movie about Boys' Town has any bearing on real life children, real orphanages, or real families in 1995 is well out of touch with reality,' he said. Daschle also called the balanced budget amendment proposal being championed by Republicans a 'cop-out' by conservatives who have promising to eliminate the deficit since Reagan's first election win in 1980. 'Balancing the federal budget has been a Republican campaign promise for so long it's hard to remember which budget they're talking about, he said. The House Republican Contract, among the reforms it committed the House to pass on its first day, promised to ensure that all laws that apply to the rest of the country will be made to apply equally to the Congress. It also pledged to require a three-fifths majority vote to pass any tax increase, to cut committee staff by one-third, and to limit the terms of all committee chairs. Dole, in listing his top five bills, also endorsed legislation that would require members of Congress to abide by the same laws they impose on the rest of the country. He also promised top attention to bills that would ban the federal imposition of unfunded mandates on local governments, give states and cities more control of much of the $8 billion federal funds contained in last year's sweeping anti-crime bill, allow the president the authority to veto individual portions of spending bills, and limit U.S. military involvement in multinational peacekeeping operations. Republicans opened the day on a solemn tone by gathering Wednesday morning at a Capitol Hill church to pray for divine guidance in their efforts over the next two years of GOP leadership. 'The problems facing America have one thing in common: They are at their core moral,' Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., told the congregation at St. Peter's Catholic Church, which included Gingrich and other party leaders. Another sign of the changing political times shined both outside and inside the Capitol building, where throngs of reporters and television crews dotted the lawns and hallways of the legislative complex to interview lawmakers. President Clinton avoided any discussion of politics when he took his traditional first-day-of-the session telephone call during the afternoon from the newly elected leaders of the House. Clinton, in the brief call from Gephardt and House Republican leader Richard Armey of Texas, told them, 'I assure you that I'm eager to work with you to make this Congress successful.' The three leaders confined most of their comments to shared jokes on Clinton's recent duck hunting trip.