The first day of the 113th Congress is likely to be noted for what did not happen — a coup in the House, an unprecedented power play in the Senate — than what did.
But Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, promised to keep his options open as he continues negotiating with Republicans in search of a bipartisan agreement on new rules to unstick the sclerotic Senate. And the House is expected to adopt rules changes to shift the emphasis to shrinking the government.
On Thursday, the House gaveled to a close the 112th Congress three minutes before noon to make way for the new session. Given the fight over the fiscal crisis that lasted right up until the end, lawmakers were conducting business almost to the final minute.
And there is plenty ahead for the newly constituted House and Senate.
There is little doubt that fiscal issues are at the forefront. Looming in the near future are showdowns between the Republican House and President Barack Obama over raising the government’s statutory borrowing limit in February and the expiration in March of a stopgap spending measure financing the government. In both instances, Republicans have vowed not to cooperate unless federal spending is cut sharply and work begins to shrink entitlement programs like Medicare. Obama has been just as adamant in saying he is not prepared to negotiate over the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, which would be threatened if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling.
Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, newly re-elected speaker John Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans to tackle the nation’s heavy burden of debt at long last. “We have to be willing — truly willing — to make this right."
Also on the two-year agenda is the first significant effort at an overhaul of the tax code in more than a quarter century. Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to chop at a thicket of existing tax breaks and use the resulting revenue to reduce rates.
Republicans hope to enshrine their small-government crusade into the rules of the House. One new House rule will require committees to identify potentially duplicative programs when considering the creation of new programs or reauthorizing existing ones. Another will require annual budget resolutions to contain information about the growth of entitlement programs, like food stamps, to quantify the growth of welfare programs.
The new rules will also authorize House lawyers to continue a legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a Bill Clinton-era law that defines marriage as a legal bond exclusively between a man and a woman. That has enraged Democrats who see it as a frivolous expenditure of tax dollars when the Justice Department has declined to defend the law’s constitutionality.
“Today, House Republicans will send a clear message to LGBT families: their fiscal responsibility mantra does not extend to their efforts to stand firmly on the wrong side of the future," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
The new rules will also authorize House lawyers to continue their pursuit of a contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder for not releasing documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-running controversy still boiling in conservative circles.
While neither Boehner nor Reid mentioned immigration in their opening-day speeches, Obama is expected to highlight the issue in the first State of the Union address of his new term. The administration’s decision this week to ease visa requirements for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants represents its latest move to reshape immigration through executive action, even as the White House gears up for an uncertain political fight over a far-more-sweeping legislative package in the months ahead.
The key issue in the Senate is the filibuster, which allows the minority party to stall bills and nominations that garner less than 60 votes. Reid has expressed a desire to limit the number of times filibusters can be used on individual bills, while younger Democrats want to go further and require filibustering senators to actually be on the Senate floor while they are holding up bills.
Reid, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and other senators are negotiating over what changes to make. One proponent of change, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, said Reid didn’t want to tackle the issue while he and other leaders were handling negotiations that avoided major tax increases and spending cuts.
Reid wants to wait until after the Senate returns to legislative business on Jan. 22 to debate the rules.
The 113th Congress began on a hopeful note when Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who had been away for a year recovering from a stroke, emerged in front of the Senate. Vice President Joe Biden greeted him with a hug and a “Welcome back, man!"
The last day of the 112th Congress lasted three minutes, taken up largely by the opening prayer of the chaplain, the Rev. Patrick Conroy, who acknowledged “many struggles" and “many sorrows" in the last two years.
“May the work of 112th issue forth to the benefits of the nation," he intoned. “Where our work has fallen short, we ask your forgiveness."
With that, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, one of the most contentious House members, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Boehner gaveled one of the least productive Congresses in history adjourned forever.