Cliff Owen, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The House and Senate ushered in a new Congress Thursday, hewing to tradition and hailing one its own who returned a year after being felled by a stroke.
The 113th Congress convened at 12 noon EST, the constitutionally mandated time, with pomp, pageantry — and of course, politics — on both sides of the Capitol.
In the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden swore in 12 new members elected in November, lawmakers who won another term and South Carolina Republican Tim Scott. The former House member was tapped by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the remaining term of Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned to head a Washington think tank.
Applause from members and the gallery marked every oath-taking. Looking on was former Vice President Walter Mondale.
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," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. 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.
In the House, members were electing the speaker, with John Boehner poised to win another term. The speaker will then swear in the lawmakers in the afternoon.
While the dozens of eager freshmen are determined to change Washington, they face the harsh reality of another stretch of divided government. The traditions come against the backdrop of a mean season that closed out an angry election year.
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," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said.
For all the change of the next Congress, the new bosses are the same as the old bosses.
President Barack Obama secured a second term in the November elections, and Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge in the new two-year Congress, ensuring that Reid will remain in charge. Republicans maintained their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 233-200. Former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Illinois seat and the one held by South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, the state's next senator, will be the two vacancies.
Boehner, R-Ohio, has faced a bruising few weeks with his fractious GOP caucus but seemed poised to win another term as speaker. He mollified angry Republicans from New York and New Jersey on Wednesday with the promise of a vote Friday on $9 billion of the storm relief package and another vote on the remaining $51 billion on Jan. 15.
The GOP members quickly abandoned their chatter about voting against the speaker.
The new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the dysfunctional 112th Congress, one of the least productive 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.
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