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U.S. Congress even stronger with Democrats but Illinois politician steals thunder

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Congress is even more abundant with Democrats after 32 senators were sworn in on Tuesday, but the ceremonies were overshadowed by the squalid political scandal surrounding efforts to fill president-elect Barack Obama's vacant Illinois Senate seat.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Congress is even more abundant with Democrats after 32 senators were sworn in on Tuesday, but the ceremonies were overshadowed by the squalid political scandal surrounding efforts to fill president-elect Barack Obama's vacant Illinois Senate seat.

Roland Burris, the man appointed to Obama's seat by disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich, staged a dramatic bit of political theatre at the Capitol Building just before the opening of the 111th Congress.

Since his paperwork was signed by Blagojevich, who's accused of corruption in attempting to sell the seat to the highest bidder, the 71-year-old Burris knew in advance he'd be turned away.

But he showed up anyway, effectively stealing the spotlight from the dozens of fellow Democratic senators being sworn in within the Capitol Building's ornate and historic walls.

"Mr. Burris is not in possession of the necessary credentials from the state of Illinois," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in his speech opening the new session of Congress.

Burris, the former Illinois attorney general, said he was "not seeking to have any type of confrontation" but added he was considering a lawsuit to force Senate Democrats to seat him.

He has suggested his denial is race-related, while his fellow Democrats insist his nomination is tainted by Blagojevich's involvement. Burris would be the only African-American senator in Congress if he wins the seat.

Burris's performance Tuesday wasn't likely to win him any friends. Majority Democrats were keen to present a united front with Obama on an economic stimulus package with a pricetag that could soar to as high as US$1 trillion.

Democrats are looking forward to two years of increased might after picking up seats in both houses - at least seven more in the Senate, and one more if Al Franken finally ends up winning his seat in Minnesota, and 21 in the House of Representatives.

They are eager to pursue an agenda with Obama that includes pulling the economy out of its nosedive, ending the war in Iraq and extending health care to Americans.

"We are ready to answer the call of the American people by putting the past eight years behind us and delivering the change that our country desperately needs," Reid said on the Senate floor.

While Obama's foot soldiers in the battle to prevent another Great Depression were being sworn in on Tuesday, the president-elect continued his efforts to build support for his economic plan.

He pledged to bring accountability to federal spending, but also warned that the U.S. could be facing trillion-dollar deficits for years to come. The current American deficit is about US$455 billion.

Obama said his financial stimulus package would set a "new higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight. We are going to ban all earmarks, the process by which individual members insert projects without review."

He added that details of the plan would be posted online so Americans can see for themselves what it entails.

For the first time, Obama also commented on the situation in Gaza as the bloody conflict between the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Israeli forces raged for an 11th day. Almost 600 people have been killed in the dispute, most of them Palestinians.

"I'm very concerned with the conflict taking place there ... I'm monitoring the situation on a day-to-day basis," he told a news conference.

"The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me, and after January 20th I'll have plenty to say about the issue ... starting at the beginning of our administration, we're going to engage effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East."

 
 
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