New Congress, Familiar Fights

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Updated at 8:04 a.m. on January 5.

American elections have consequences, and today, lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill and the Democrat in the White House must begin living with the seismic changes ushered in by the midterm elections of 2010, which put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and Democrats, particularly President Obama, on the defensive.

A new Congress convenes in Washington today with prayer events, real and ceremonial swearing-in ceremonies, and a formal transfer of the Speaker's gavel from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner, reflecting the change in party control over the House. The day will be a stream of pomp and pageantry along with hopeful, optimistic speeches about the future of the country and the decency and diligence of the American people.


According to advance remarks released by his office, Boehner will say, "The people voted to end business as usual. And today we begin carrying out their instructions." He'll promise to lead a Congress that "respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves." But in all likelihood, the ceremony will simply serve as another escalation point in the intense political skirmishing that has been the hallmark of our national politics for more than a generation.

Republicans have pledged to use their new leverage to roll back Democratic advances made over the last two years, particularly on health care, and to do whatever they can to make sure that Obama is not reelected in 2012.

For their part, Democrats are gearing up to vigorously defend their achievements.

For Boehner and other House Republicans, today marks the moment they begin to make good on all the cost-cutting, government-streamlining pledges made during the campaign and over the last two years. They approach the task with the benefit of having watched Democrats, who took control of the Congress just four years ago, keep many of their campaign promises only to find themselves in deep disfavor with the voters last November. "I think what the American people are really looking for are results. OK?" said incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "And results are going to be judged through the prism of whether jobs are created and whether spending is cut and the deficit is brought back under control."

While there is a growing consensus that deficit spending is an urgent issue, there is no agreement on what should be cut. In the hopeful, optimistic category was Cantor's declaration that he expected Democrats to work with the House GOP on cutting spending: "It is as much the responsibility of this administration, as well as the Senate, to join with us in echoing what we heard in the last couple of months over the election, which was: We have to get serious about cutting spending," Cantor said.

But already there are signs of strife. Democrats are dismayed over the Republicans' rules package, which will set the parameters on how legislation will proceed toward a floor vote in the House and how amendments will be offered on legislation. Boehner and his allies describe the new rules as a way to make real their promises to conduct House business with more transparency and openness. Democrats, on the other hand, see hypocrisy and petty politics.

"Rep. Cantor is laying the groundwork for Republicans' extremist agenda of shutting down the government, raising taxes on small businesses, and telling seniors they're on their own by reopening the Medicare donut hole," said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Republicans are also showing their hypocrisy on fiscal responsibility yet again by trying to roll back measures that will cut the deficit by $143 billion with no plan to pay for it. The American people want common-sense solutions to help middle-class Americans make ends meet, not extremist political stunts."

Business on the Senate side of the Capitol is likely to be contentious as well. Thirteen new senators will be sworn in today, along with Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, who is returning to the body. The first order of business will be action on reforming the filibuster, which has become the object of great concern among some Democrats who believe that minority Republicans have abused the filibuster to stifle legislation that had sufficient support to pass the Senate.

Many now see it as an obstructionist tool and want to change the rules surrounding its use. In the name of fixing what they see as a broken chamber, some filibuster-reform advocates will introduce proposals to change the filibuster rules. The expectation, however, is that Reid will delay that confrontation for a while to see if some kind of deal can be worked out with Republicans, who now have no interest in diluting their filibuster powers.

Reid and Senate Rules Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., appear to hope that the reform proposal will provide leverage in talks with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is set to become Rules ranking member, and will spur a deal on modest rules changes.

Whatever the outcome, the partisanship that resulted in a record number of filibusters in the last Congress is unlikely to abate any time soon, as both the winners and survivors of the 2010 elections set about the nation's legislative business with an eye on 2012.

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Billy House & Dan Friedman

Billy House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal. Dan Friedman is a staff writer (Senate leadership) for National Journal.

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