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Boehner remains speaker – barely – as new Congress convenes

John Boehner fends off dissent within his GOP ranks to win a new term as House speaker as the 113th Congress begins.

January 03, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Vice President Joe Biden, right, helps Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) climb the Capitol stairs for the first day of the 113th Congress. Kirk is recovering from a stroke that sidelined him for nearly a year.
Vice President Joe Biden, right, helps Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) climb… (Pete Marovich, Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — Republican John A. Boehner narrowly won reelection as House speaker Thursday, but not without a very public display of dissent from within his ranks that launched what promises to be a turbulent 113th Congress in a divided Washington.

The edgy vote for the speaker's job punctuated an otherwise picture-pretty day at the Capitol, as newly elected lawmakers arrived with fresh suits and haircuts, many with families in tow.

After the recent marathon of brutal budget battles, opening day offered a reprieve.

"It's a very huge moment today," said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), one of the better-known representatives among the 82-member House freshman class, with sweet-smelling pua kene kene, ti leaf and maile leis draped around her neck.

The Hindu congresswoman, along with Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a double amputee, are the first women combat veterans in Congress. The two served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The new Congress offered many firsts — with record numbers of African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American lawmakers, and a high of 101 women, including a landmark 20 in the Senate.

In fact, women and minorities make up the majority of the House Democratic caucus — the first time a major party is not mostly represented by white males.

The Senate now has one African American, Republican Tim Scott, who brought his mother to his swearing-in. But Scott's appointment to fill the open South Carolina seat reflects the demographic challenges facing the GOP — the House now has no black Republicans.

As senators lined up alphabetically at the back of the chamber, past and present converged. Former political giants, including Walter F. Mondale and John Glenn, were on hand, while Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was the first to walk down the aisle to be sworn in, becoming the first openly gay senator.

"Congratulations, senator," said Vice President Joe Biden, after he administered the oath.

When Biden asked incoming Sen. Chris Murphy to raise his hand, the Connecticut Democrat's 1-year-old son did the same.

The morning brought the triumphant return of Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who climbed the towering stairs on the east front of the Capitol, after recovering from a stroke that sidelined him for nearly a year. Applause echoed through the halls as he entered the chamber.

"Give our senators today spiritual, intellectual and physical revitalization," said the Senate chaplain, former Navy Adm. Barry C. Black, in an opening prayer.

That divine assistance may be called on as the new Congress picks up where the old one left off just days ago, returning to partisan budget battles and starting new ones on gun control and immigration.

"At noon today, I introduced the first bill of the 113th Congress to repeal Obamacare in its entirety," tea party Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) wrote on Twitter.

Boehner faces enormous challenges in containing his unruly majority, as displayed in the mere 220 votes he garnered for his narrow reelection as speaker.

Protest votes were cast by 10 Republicans, but even the opposition was split. Three chose the No. 2 Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who shook his head in disapproval as his name was mentioned; a couple of tea party lawmakers threw their votes to departing Rep. Allen West, the Florida firebrand who did not win reelection; one offered the former comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office.

Newly elected Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City) said his 14-year-old daughter leaned over and said the whole event reminded her of high school.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat — "the lady who broke the glass ceiling," as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) put it in casting his vote for the first female speaker to return to the post — was also nominated for speaker. All but five Democrats voted for her, including one who cast his lot with retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell.

After the vote, President Obama telephoned Boehner and Pelosi from Hawaii, where he is vacationing.

Boehner used his opening speech to assert that the Republican-led House would be a line of defense against Obama's agenda, particularly on the federal budget.

"In our hearts, we know it is wrong to pass on this debt to our kids and grandkids," Boehner said. "Now we have to be willing — truly willing — to make this right."

The inability of Boehner and Obama to reach a larger deficit agreement in "fiscal cliff" talks all but ensured a renewal of "trench warfare," as Boehner has put it, starting with the administration's forthcoming request to raise the limit on the amount of federal debt in a matter of months.

Obama has insisted he will not engage in brinkmanship with the GOP over that issue. But he may have no choice. "The president may not want to have this debate, but it's the one he's going to have, because the country needs it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned from the other side of the Capitol.

The start of the new Congress was not without some bittersweet moments, as departing lawmakers said their goodbyes.

The day before, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), the liberal leader of often lost causes, made his farewell speech after 16 years in office, calling for a new politics in the nation.

"That is really the idea of the United States: It's the unity of states," Kucinich said. "But it's even deeper than that. It's expressive of the unity of people, that it's all for one and one for all. Our nation's first motto, E pluribus unum, out of many, we are one."

By noon Thursday, Kucinich and the other retirees were gone, as the new Congress began.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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