112th Congress convenes; Boehner elected speaker

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 5 2011 3:24 p.m. MST

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.

Associated Press writers Charles Babington and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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