WASHINGTON — Newly elected speaker John Boehner hailed the Republican Party’s return to control of the House Wednesday, vowing a more open legislative process but acknowledging that “a great deal of scar tissue has built up on both sides of the aisle.”
GOP lawmakers, who picked up 64 House seats in the November elections, cheered loudly when Boehner defeated Democrat Nancy Pelosi in the roll call for speaker. The veteran Ohio lawmaker’s rise to the speakership was virtually guaranteed by his party’s midterm triumphs, which ended Pelosi’s four-year reign.
The new Senate also convened Wednesday, with Vice President Joe Biden administering the oath to lawmakers he had campaigned for and against last fall. Senators moved quickly to a debate over filibuster rules, with Democratic and Republican leaders accusing each other of obstructing progress and trying to game the parliamentary system.
But most eyes were on the House, where the new GOP majority has vowed to battle President Barack Obama on health care, spending, taxes and other issues.
Boehner, the perpetually tanned legislator who rose, fell and rose again in Republican leadership contests over the past two decades, told a packed chamber that Congress must tackle tough issues such as cutting spending and reducing the deficit.
“No longer can we kick the can down the road,” he said.
But far-reaching accords will be difficult in Washington, where Democrats still control the Senate and Obama wields veto powers.
In the House, children and grandchildren of new lawmakers fidgeted, temporarily lending lighter moments to a chamber certain to see fierce debates and partisan votes in the next two years. House Republicans, for instance, plan to vote within days to overturn Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul, but they acknowledge it’s a symbolic gesture because the Senate will not concur.
Nineteen House Democrats refused to vote for Pelosi as speaker, baring the lingering wounds from last fall’s bitter elections. Countless GOP campaign ads had depicted Pelosi and her allies as out-of-touch liberals. Eleven House Democrats kept campaign promises Wednesday by voting for fellow centrist Heath Shuler, D-N.C.
The GOP’s dramatic election gains will give them a 242-193 edge in the House. Many freshman Republicans are hardcore conservatives with tea party connections, and Boehner may struggle at times to keep his caucus unified, especially on contentious matters such as raising the federal debt limit.
The day’s ceremonies ended two years of Democratic dominance in Washington and ushered in a divided government in the run-up to the 2012 congressional and presidential elections. With campaigns but a short time away, Obama and congressional Republicans are set to square off over the size of government and the taxpayer dollars it spends.
Fresh from a Hawaii vacation, Obama told reporters he expects Republicans initially to “play to their base.”
“But I’m pretty confident that they’re going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people,” he added. “My hope is that John Boehner and (Senate GOP leader) Mitch McConnell will realize that there will be plenty of time to campaign for 2012 in 2012.”
Biden reveled in his role as president of the Senate, swearing in 35 senators – several of whom he campaigned against last fall.
A congenial, back-slapping atmosphere prevailed, and numerous former senators – including former Vice President Dan Quayle – escorted home state colleagues to the Senate well to be sworn in. His son, Ben Quayle, was among the new House members being sworn in on the other side of the building.
Several tea party favorites, like Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., promise to make life complicated for returning Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., himself a survivor of a costly campaign against tea party-backed Sharron Angle.
The first order of Senate business was passing a resolution honoring Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on becoming the longest serving female senator. Then, the chamber turned to a Democratic-initiated debate on changing the chamber’s rules to tame the filibuster and other ways to grind the Senate to a halt.
For now, both parties will build their election-year cases in the congressional arena.
It began Wednesday morning when Boehner joined Pelosi and others at a bipartisan prayer service at St. Peter’s Catholic Church near the Capitol. It continues when Pelosi, the Californian who made history by becoming the first woman speaker four years ago, hands the gavel to Boehner, the affable Ohioan with blue collar roots, and the new Congress is sworn into office. Republicans have promised to run the House with an eye toward saving and cutting spending, and in a manner more open to public scrutiny and debate.
Boehner said the voters “have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker.”
Flexing its newfound muscles, the incoming GOP majority is preparing to break its own new rules next week when it votes, without hearings or a chance to make changes, to cancel Obama’s signature health care law.
“It’s not like we haven’t litigated this for over a year,” Boehner said Tuesday.
Across the Capitol, the Senate opened for business with the Democrats’ majority down from 60 votes two years ago to 53 – making it harder to enact legislation Obama seeks. But it gives them more than enough clout to block passage of bills like the health care repeal House Republicans want.
The shrunken Democratic ranks give Republicans leverage to bargain for a reduction in spending on items like a $1.4 billion food safety measure Obama signed Tuesday.
In the House, the GOP’s new “cut and grow majority” envisions curbs on government spending and regulations to spur the economy, Cantor said.
The first spending cut vote is set for Thursday, a 5 percent reduction in the amount ticketed for lawmakers’ and committees’ offices and leadership staff. Aides estimate the savings at $35 million over the next nine months.
Republicans have pledged to vote at least once a week on bills that cut spending. And Cantor challenged Obama to include significant spending cuts in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25.
But Republicans acknowledge they must do more than oppose Obama’s every proposal, as they did the past two years of Democratic rule. That might mean compromise, anathema to GOP hardliners, setting up the potential for conflicts in the party.
The effort to repeal health care overhaul appears to be exempt from some of the new majority’s stated priorities and reforms.
One of the first House votes on Wednesday will be the enactment of a series of rules changes that Republicans crafted to increase openness in Congress’ proceedings. Despite that, the new majority intends to pass the health care repeal next week without committee hearings or permitting Democrats a chance to seek changes.
Republicans also have decided to ignore estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that the bill as it originally passed would cut spending by $143 billion over the next decade.
In the Senate, a group of Democrats led by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico called for changes that would make it harder for the minority to delay legislation by filibuster. It’s a key question now that Democrats are seven senators short of the 60 required to break such logjams.