WASHINGTON — A new Congress opened for business Thursday to confront long-festering national problems, deficits and immigration among them, in an intensely partisan and crisis-driven era of divided government. "The American dream is in peril," said House Speaker John Boehner, re-elected to his post despite a mini-revolt in Republican ranks.
Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans in the 113th Congress to tackle the nation's heavy burden of debt at long last. "We have to be willing — truly willing — to make this right."
Also on the two-year agenda is the first significant effort at an overhaul of the tax code in more than a quarter-century. Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to chop at a thicket of existing tax breaks and use the resulting revenue to reduce rates.
There were personal milestones aplenty as the winners of last fall's races swore an oath of office as old as the republic.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Deb Fischer of Nebraska were among the newcomers sworn in, raising the number of women in the Senate to a record 20. Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black Republican in the Senate in more than three decades.
On the first day of a new term, one veteran made a stirring comeback. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois returned to the Capitol for the first time since suffering a stroke a year ago, walking slowly up the 45 steps to the Capitol with the use of a cane. "Good to see you, guys," he said.
Across the Capitol, children and grandchildren squirmed through opening formalities that ended with Boehner's election as the most powerful Republican in a government where President Barack Obama will soon be sworn in to a second term and his fellow Democrats control the Senate.
While neither Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned immigration in their opening-day speeches, Obama is expected to highlight the issue in the first State of the Union address of his new term. Lawmakers are already working toward a compromise they hope can clear both houses.
Most Democrats have long favored legislation to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, and Republicans have stoutly resisted. Now, though, many within the GOP appear ready to reconsider, after watching with alarm as Obama ran up an estimated 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning re-election over Mitt Romney in November.
There is little doubt that fiscal issues are at the forefront, though, as they have been since the economy cratered more than four years ago. The issue dominated the just-ended Congress from beginning to end as tea party-backed lawmakers pressed relentlessly to cut spending and reduce deficits.
They met with decidedly mixed success.
They won Obama's signature on $1 trillion in cuts over a decade after using the debt limit as leverage, but were forced into a humiliating surrender a year ago after trying to block an extension in payroll tax cuts. And in the last major act of the 112th Congress, they were forced to swallow legislation that contained next-to-no spending cuts, raised tax rates on the wealthy while keeping them even for the middle class and boosted deficits by an estimated $4 trillion over a decade.
And now, the newly enfranchised Congress will begin by raising deficits. National flood insurance legislation to help victims of Hurricane Sandy will create slightly more than $9 billion in red ink if it passes as expected on Friday. A follow-up disaster aid measure that Boehner has said will be brought to a vote on Jan. 15 would add $27 billion — more if the bill grows, as seems likely, after it is reconciled with a $60-billion Senate version.
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