WASHINGTON — The chin started trembling partway down the center aisle as the applause rose to a roar. John Boehner, the emotional Ohioan about to become the House's new speaker, took his time, shaking hands with colleagues and their children on his way to the rostrum. At its foot, the hankie came out.
"It's still just me," he told the House after departing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, dry-eyed, handed Boehner his outsized "gavel of choice."
It is known to bug Boehner that he can't keep it together at big moments, but apparently it runs in the family. At the moment Pelosi transferred power to her successor, at least six hankies had been deployed by Boehner's proudly weeping family members watching from the gallery overhead.
By any measure, Wednesday was a dramatic time for the Boehners, Congress and a recession-weary nation that had voted two months earlier to break the Democrats' grip on Washington power. In the 112th Congress, Democrats still hold the majority of the Senate and President Barack Obama owns the veto pen. The House, though, will be run by Boehner and a Republican caucus determined to undo much of the Democrats' work — starting with Obama's signature health care overhaul.
For Wednesday at least, the atmosphere inside the House was as much about institutional change as the political kind.
Democrats gave Boehner a standing ovation when he entered, and they started the applause later when Pelosi, in her farewell address, noted that the new speaker had earned everyone's respect.
"I can't say that we're over it," Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said of her party's Election Day losses, which were bigger than expected. "We didn't think it was going to change like this."
As she spoke, some of the 85 Republican and nine Democratic freshmen sworn in Wednesday were picking up manila envelopes with their keys to power inside: gold-and-blue lapel pins, their voting cards and their House license plates.
"I'm official!" Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, announced to his new staff members, showing off his pin. "Is it on straight?"
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., pointed to the "99" printed on his envelope: that's his rank on the seniority ladder out of 435 members. It's an improvement over number 434, Lucas' rank when he was first elected as a member of the "Republican revolution" of 1994.
"I'm going from the conscience of the body back to the majority," Lucas said. "I'm euphoric. No, say I'm enthusiastic. That's a better word."
Boehner and his lieutenants have cautioned Republicans for months against any victory dancing, rhetorical or otherwise. Austerity is the name of their game at the start of this Congress in a recovering economy — big-dollar fund raisers and newoffice space in the Capitol's swankiest suites notwithstanding.
But there was no mistaking the glee with which House Republicans assumed the levers of power Wednesday. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the stern-faced tactician from across the building, grinned widely and appeared to engage in lighthearted chit-chat on the House floor as Boehner's big moment approached.
Golf-tanned and aw-shucks affable, Boehner hugged and back-patted his way from the Democratic side of the House through the Republican section early Wednesday in a procession that underscored the widely-held affection for him. Even Obama, who has next to no relationship with the new speaker, indicated there may be tee time for the pair in the future.
"That might require the president to practice a bit," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.1 comment on this story
Finally up on the podium, Boehner appeared weepy during Pelosi's farewell speech. He wiped his nose; his lips trembled when she handed him the gavel.
Pelosi descended to the floor of the House, where a saddle-shoed grandson, Paul Vos, leapt into her arms. She propped him on one hip and headed for the seat on the aisle that she will occupy as leader of the Democratic minority.
Speaker at last, Boehner stepped up to the microphone and began his maiden speech with a reminder that he's still the same person — the son of a bar owner and one of a dozen siblings.
He got though the address without shedding a tear.