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20 reasons this was a historic Congress

From anthrax scare to number of women senators, 107th Congress compiled many firsts, ignoble and otherwise.

Most sessions of Congress pass into history with barely a ripple. Not this one. Even in its waning hours, the 107th Congress is generating more historic moments than any in the modern era.

From unusual power-sharing agreements - and shifts - to the first attack on the capital since the war of 1812, many of these events destined for parchment were driven by the logic of events; others, by the high stakes of a political system divided as neatly as a walnut.

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Start with December, one of those quiet months when nothing is supposed to happen on Capitol Hill. On Dec. 5, 2002, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond became the first senator to reach his 100th year in office.

A racially charged remark by Republican leader Trent Lott at a celebration to mark this event produced another first: the forced resignation of a majority leader by members of his own party. Even the means of this ouster was unprecedented: The new Republican leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, was elected via a telephone conference call.

Almost overlooked while all this was going on, the Senate on Dec. 20 swore in its 14th woman - another record. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision to name his daughter, Lisa, to fill his unexpired term also marked the first time a US senator was appointed by her father.

"The shift to 14 woman is a very big historical footnote," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "It means that slowly but surely we're moving toward eventual parity between genders in both the House and the Senate. We're making a lot more progress on gender equity than racial equity."

More records

Even before the gavel thumped to start the two-year session on Jan. 3, 2001, the Senate had elected its first deceased person, Mel Carnahan of Missouri, and its first first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. The number of women senators jumped from nine to a record 13.

Many of the firsts of this session grew out of a historic 50-50 split in the Senate. For the first time, the Senate drafted a power-sharing agreement that gave both parties parity on committees. Democrats controlled the Senate from Jan. 3 until Jan. 20, when Vice President Dick Cheney was sworn in and able to break tie votes in the Senate.

The partisan tension surfaced early in the May 3 firing of Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove, at the request of then-majority leader Lott. It marked the first time this top arbiter of procedural disputes was ousted during a session. Insiders said it signaled how bitterly partisan the session had become.

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"You had such a tight division of power that people were willing to try new tactics to hold on to it," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "The parliamentarian was just a small player in the bigger battle for power."

The dramatic defection of Vermont Senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party on June 6, 2001, only intensified that power struggle. "It marked the first time party control formally shifted within a two-year congressional session," says Senate historian Richard Baker. Power would technically shift again with the swearing in of Missouri Republican James Talent, who was elected to replace Sen. Jean Carnahan on Nov. 5 of this year.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 set off their own sequence of firsts, including the first evacuation of the Capitol since the British razed it in August 1814. A bomb scare two days later produced another evacuation - and the first roll-call vote ever to take place (in part) on the Capitol lawn.

There were also historic moments in those troubled days after 9/11 that defy easy classification, such as when lawmakers gathered on the Capitol steps to pledge unity and sing "God Bless America."

"It was not a cheap political act. They really meant it," says Mr. Sabato. "It was one of the most genuine moments I've ever seen in our [world of] plastic politics."

Anthrax scare

The nation's first biological attack, involving anthrax mailings in October 2001, forced yet another evacuation that shut down half of Senate offices for three months.

The session that began with a plane crash that changed the course of an election also ended with one. With the loss of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone on Oct. 25, former Vice President Walter Mondale came out of retirement to try to keep the seat for Democrats. His five-day campaign, unsuccessful, was the shortest in the Senate's modern history, says historian Baker.

"It's been a tumultuous two years - a year in deep flux, with the rise and fall of so many people," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. He cites the ouster of Lott as well as of former Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, who lost his reelection bid after disclosure of ties to an intern who disappeared and was later found murdered.

"The 24-hour news cycle introduced by the cable networks has made the media hungry for almost anything that seems a little bit out of the ordinary in the lives of politicians," he adds. "People in politics are not allowed many slips any more."