new congress 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The 111th Congress convened for the first time on Tuesday, with strong Democratic majorities in both houses that will soon be complimented by a Democrat-controlled White House for the first time in 16 years.
The spiraling economic crisis is set to dominate the new Congress's first weeks, as the leadership works to ready a $775 billion stimulus bill for US President-elect Barack Obama's signature after he takes office.
Several US House leaders are also expected to sponsor a nonbinding resolution backing Israel in its battle with Hamas as one of their first pieces of business.
Democrats have also begun welcoming Al Franken as the newest Jewish member of Congress, after the Minnesota canvassing board certified the former Saturday Night Live comedian as the razor-thin winner of the Minnesota senate race on Monday.
Challenger Norm Coleman, one of two incumbent Jewish Republicans in the US Senate, was originally seen as getting more votes on Election Day in November and has promised a lawsuit over the conclusion, which might keep the verdict in limbo for several more months.
Obama is also filling the last of his major staff openings, choosing Elana Kagan as solicitor general and Leon Panetta as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Kagan is currently the dean of Harvard Law School, where Obama received his law degree, and once clerked for Judge Abner Mikva, an early political mentor of Obama's in Chicago. Obama and Kagan also both once taught at the University of Chicago Law School.
Kagan would be the first female solicitor general, the government's advocate before the Supreme Court. She has received widespread praise for her intellect, leadership skills and consensus-oriented approach.
Conservative voices have also lauded her for welcoming ideologically diverse faculty members and otherwise doing a strong job as Harvard Law School dean.
Kagan also won kudos from Washington Jewish voices.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, worked with Kagan when she was an attorney and policy adviser in the Clinton White House.
"She's intellectually brilliant, and politically gifted at finding common ground and finding consensus," Saperstein said, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He added that Kagan "knows First Amendment issues very well" and "really knows the Jewish community well."
The Forward once reported that Kagan appeared at an American Friends of the Hebrew University lawyers lunch in New York, and told the gathering that her mother "would be proud" that she was the keynote speaker at the "Torch of Learning" luncheon.
Her late parents, Gloria and Bob Kagan, were longtime active members of Manhattan's West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation.
In contrast to Kagan's reception as well as that of most other Obama appointments, the Panetta pick has come under criticism. Some has even originated from within his own party, which could complicate his Senate confirmation.
Several Republicans and Democrats alike have attacked Panetta, former US president Bill Clinton's chief of staff, as lacking experience on intelligence issues.
Though Panetta has a history of good bipartisan relations and strong management experience, even his longtime friend and fellow Californian, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, took issue with the choice.
She complained about Panetta's lack of intelligence experience and Obama's failure to consult with her on the decision. Feinstein chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will consider the nomination.
Obama is also expected to nominate retired Adm. Dennis Blair, a former chief of the US military's Pacific Command, to be director of national intelligence.
Blair oversaw anti-terrorism efforts in southeast Asia after the September 11 attacks.
AP contributed to this report.
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