Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, holds up his gavel Jan. 3 after being re-elected as speaker of the House during the opening session of the 113th U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was re-elected to a second two-year term to lead a polarized Congress, which convened for the 113th session on Thursday. Debates on deficit reduction, immigration, and gun laws are on the agenda.
For Boehner, leadership challenges also await. He begins the new Congress on a weakened note after failing to deliver a majority of Republicans in support of a bipartisan deal to avert the fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts, which passed on the strength of House Democrats’ support.
He also came under fire this week from Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., for delaying action on federal aid for storm victims in the Northeast.
His re-election was never in doubt, but rank-and-file frustration spilled out on the House floor during the roll call vote to elect the speaker, which is the first order of business in a new Congress. Nine Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner, and one lawmaker, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, voted present. Of the nine who voted against Boehner, three voted for his top deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Two freshman lawmakers who won in the 2010 Tea Party wave, Reps. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Raul Labrador of Idaho, did not vote despite being present.
Boehner was re-elected with 220 votes, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received 192. Pelosi did not receive the support of a half dozen Democrats.
In a speech before the House, Boehner sought an inspirational tone for the new session. “For those who are returning, who have walked these aisles before, maybe it’s time we feel awestruck again,” he said, calling the the 113th Congress “a time to rise” and cautioned lawmakers against putting politics ahead of the country. “So if you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you,” he said.
In her remarks, Pelosi called on Congress to address immigration reform and gun laws, invoking the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The Senate was also sworn in Thursday, ushering in a historic level of women, 20, serving in the chamber and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. He is the only African American in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will continue to lead the chamber.
Vice President Biden swore in the 12 new members elected in November. Openining day draws scores of former lawmakers back to Capitol Hill. Looking on from the Senate gallery was former senator and vice president Walter Mondale from Minnesota. Defeated GOP senator Richard Lugar and retired Democratic senator Evan Bayh appeared alongside newly elected home state Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Democrat. Former Ohio Democratic senator John Glenn appeared with newly reelected Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Shortly before the session, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who had been absent for the past year while recovering from a stroke, slowly walked up the 45 steps to the Senate, with Biden nearby and the Senate leaders at the top of the stairs to greet him.
“A courageous man,” Reid said. Members of the Illinois congressional delegation and senators stood on the steps.
As he entered the building, resting on a cane, Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., helped Kirk take off his coat. The senator said he was glad to be back.
The traditions come against the backdrop of a divided Congress that is on a collision course with President Obama over upcoming budget fights to extend the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling and fund the federal government.
A deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” of big tax increases and spending cuts split the parties in New Year’s Day votes, and the House’s failure to vote on a Superstorm Sandy aid package before adjournment prompted GOP recriminations against the leadership.
“There’s a lot of hangover obviously from the last few weeks of this session into the new one, which always makes a fresh start a lot harder,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
Followng the 2012 elections, Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge in the new Congress, while Republicans maintained their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 233-200. There are two vacancies.
The new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the dysfunctional 112th Congress, one of the least productive and most unpopular in more than 60 years. Tea Party members within the Republican ranks insist on fiscal discipline in the face of growing deficits and have pressed for deep cuts in spending as part of a reduced role for the federal government. Democrats envision a government with enough resources to help the less fortunate and press for the wealthiest to pay more in taxes.
“We can only hope for more help,” said Manchin, who was re-elected in November. “Any time you have new members arriving you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and kind of a vitality that is needed. We hope that they’re coming eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically.”
At least one longtime Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, will be departing in a few weeks, nominated by Obama to be secretary of State. That opens the door to former Republican senator Scott Brown, the only incumbent senator to lose in November’s elections, to possibly make a bid to return to Washington.
Eighty-two freshmen join the House — 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans.
In the Senate, the Associated Press reported that Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are negotiating possible changes in the rules as lawmakers face a bitter partisan fight over filibusters, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about private matters.
Reid has complained that Republicans filibuster too often and has threatened to impose strict limits with a simple majority vote. That step could set off retaliatory delays and other maneuvers by Republicans, who argue that they filibuster because Reid often blocks them from offering amendments.
The aide said Reid was preserving the option of making changes with a simple majority vote.
Susan Davis is the chief congressional reporter for USA Today. Contributing: Associated Press