John Boehner's First Day


Updated 4:27 p.m.

The deal is done: With a wave of his huge wooden gavel, John Boehner took control of the House of Representatives.

The gavel is an outsized block of wood that looks like the sawed-off top of a sledgehammer, far bigger than the medium-sized one Boehner handed to Pelosi four years ago. Boehner's gavel was made by one of his constituents in western Ohio and given to the new speaker as a gift. The symbol of Boehner's new power fits well with his straightforward, old-boy demeanor, a facet of his persona that the outgoing speaker praised as she introduced him.

The House of Representatives was abuzz today, sort of like the first day of high school. Members patted shoulders and shook hands congenially; little kids scurried around behind their lawmaker parents, outside the House chamber and in it. After a quorum call around noon, members all filed in to sit or stand less in reverence than in friendly anticipation, waiting for power to change hands officially.

Lawmakers milled about the floor, talking to one another, finding seats in short supply as members' children (toddlers and teenagers alike, sitting in chairs and laps) accompanied them to see their parents sworn in. Members stood behind the last row of seats, leaning on the banister, spilling into the aisles.

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A cheer erupted as Boehner and Pelosi stepped up to the dais in the front of the room. As Pelosi began her speech, a little girl in the visitor's gallery started to cry.

"It is a high honor to welcome all the members of Congress and their families to the House of Representatives," Pelosi said. And with a cheer, the ceremony began.

Pelosi spoke about bipartisanship and a "shared commitment to the way forward" but eventually steered into more controversial territory, listing the achievements of the Democratic Congress, to Democratic clapping and Republican silence, a la a State of the Union address.

"Patients can no longer be thrown off their insurance," Pelosi declared. "Taxpayers will be saved $1.3 trillion." She mentioned the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And for a few minutes, as Democrats clapped and Republicans shot stony glances at their former tormentor, congeniality was sucked out of the room.

Pelosi saved some kind words for Boehner, calling him "a man of conviction, a public servant," who has "earned the confidence of his conference." She thanked her colleagues for making her the first woman speaker, which everyone, Democrat and Republican alike, applauded.

And then the enormous gavel was handed over. "It's larger than most gavels here, but [it's] the gavel of choice for Speaker Boehner." The chamber laughed.


Boehner took the gavel from Pelosi with a hug, looking ready to wield this immense wooden thing. Republicans whistled and cheered; Democrats stood to clap along with them. Bipartisanship was back, if only for a minute or two. Boehner took the gavel in both hands, twisting it slightly, feeling its weight, and promptly teared up—a signature move of his—wiping his nose with a handkerchief as the Republican whooping got even louder. When he banged it, grins widened on all the Republican faces, seated in the left half of the room.

As Boehner stepped up to the podium and began speaking, another child started crying. That was something of a theme for the day.

"We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in ten of our neighbors are looking for work. Health-care costs are still rising for families and small businesses. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress," Boehner said. "No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions."

Republicans stood and clapped. Democrats did not.

As all this was happening, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an architect of GOP obstructionism in the Obama era, sat still in the very middle of the House chamber. Apparently there alone, and the only senator in the room that I could notice, McConnell wore a deep red tie and fixed his eyes steadily on Boehner the entire time, his arms folded, clapping reservedly when the time was right. McConnell has been Boehner's Senate counterpart over the last four years, and while Boehner is genial and easy to like, McConnell is careful and disciplined. His mastery of the GOP Senate caucus and steadfast opposition to Democrats put a stop to aggressive bills Pelosi was able to pass, turning the Senate into a morass for Democratic ambitions since the beginning of 2009. McConnell's resistance and helping Boehner get where he is today. Almost everything, from the Kentucky senator's vantage, had gone to plan.

A child, seated with a lawmaker in the front row of the chamber, started throwing a silent tantrum. He stood up and waved his arms up and down, then stormed down the aisle, eventually escorted out by his sister. Boehner remained unfazed.

Keeping his hands folded neatly on the podium, raising his left index finger to make points, Boehner pledged a "renewed focus on our Constitution" and, amidst this big moment, injected some humility by reciting the God's curse on Adam: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They 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. After all, this is the people's House. This is their Congress. It's about them, not us," Boehner said. "What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves."

"A great deal of scar tissue has built up on both sides of the aisle: We cannot ignore that, nor should we.My belief has always been, we can disagree without being disagreeable," Boehner said.

In the most bipartisan moment of the day, Boehner was sworn in by the oldest and longest-serving member of the House, the 84-year old John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan (who was the only member not to stand when Pelosi and Boehner took the podium). Dingell ambled up to a small lectern and read the oath of office to Boehner.

And with Boehner's affirmation, the 112th Congress had begun.

Afterward, members gladhanded and made their way out of the chamber. Republicans were celebratory, but restrained. "We have to avoid celebrating too much when so many people are out of work," New York's Peter King, one of the biggest Republican firebrands on national security issues in particular, told me after Boehner's speech.

"It's always nice to go back in the majority, certainly nothing compares to the first time, 10 years ago, but this is a close second I guess," said a smiling Jeff Flake, when I asked him how this stacks up to other moments in his political career.

On his way out of the Speaker's Lobby that sits adjacent to the House floor, Dana Rohrabacher, the 12-term congressman from outside L.A., gave a shoulder pat to a new member, the Tea-Party-backed Allen West of Ft. Lauderdale.

"Sir, it's gonna be great," Rohrabacher told West. "We're gonna shake things up here."

"We got to. The people are counting on us," West replied.

"You got it."

And with so many handshakes, the transaction was complete.

Illustration credit: Alex Hoyt (with iPad Brushes)

Image/thumbnail credit: Getty Images