WASHINGTON – With the “fiscal cliff” averted despite the failure to solve key budget issues, the 112th Congress will close out its widely criticized term and the 113th Congress will be sworn in Thursday.
The outgoing Congress was panned by pundits and ordinary citizens alike, with approval ratings as low as 12%, and it earned the title of “least productive” with just 237 bills passed into law (compared with 385 and 456 in the preceding two Congresses). But 95% of members who made it to the ballot retained their seats.
Democrats gained slight ground in both houses in the 2012 election, though control of both remained in the same hands: Democrats still run the Senate and Republicans the House.
The GOP leads, 234 representatives to 201, in the House, having lost eight seats to Democrats.
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And in the Senate, Democrats lead, 55-45, counting independent Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who will caucus with them. Republicans lost two seats and Democrats gained two, including the closely watched race in Massachusetts between Elizabeth Warren and departing Sen. Scott Brown.
The incoming congressional class features a record number of female (100), Latino (38), Asian American (12) and openly gay or bisexual (7) members, along with 43 African Americans.
The top leadership posts in the House and Senate will probably be unchanged, even though House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has faced criticism from some in his party. And Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) will serve his first full term as president pro tempore, replacing the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
With the new Congress comes a number of new committee chairmanships. Republicans continue to face criticism for their lack of female appointees.
A number of well-known congressional figures will be absent in the new session. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) are retiring from office. Others, such as Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), were ousted by primary challengers.
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With those and other departures, the new Congress will probably be at least as divided as the last, with a number of representatives known for being moderates replaced by more partisan lawmakers. Lieberman, for example, is being replaced by Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is being succeeded by tea party favorite Ted Cruz. In the House, the moderate Democratic Blue Dog Caucus has seen its membership dwindle from 54 in the 111th Congress to 14.
The 113th Congress will quickly find crucial legislation on its plate, with a vote on a $9-billion flood aid package for Superstorm Sandy victims scheduled for Friday in the House. Also on the early docket will be the remaining $51-billion aid package for Sandy victims on Jan. 15, gun control proposals anticipated to be sent down by a White House committee led by Vice President Joe Biden, the lapsed Violence Against Women Act and, of course, the deep federal spending cuts that were postponed for just two months.
It remains to be seen whether the new Congress will be looked on more favorably than the last. During its tenure, the approval rating of the 112th Congress peaked at 24% in 2011, dipping as low as 12% early last year before hitting 18% in December, according to Gallup.
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[For the Record, 2:50 p.m. PST Jan. 3: The correct total of Latino representatives in the 113th Congress is 38, not 31.]