WASHINGTON – A new United States Congress took office on Thursday, ready to face the same bitter partisan standoffs that plagued the previous congressional session and kept the world on edge during the so-called fiscal cliff crisis.
With the 112th Congress now widely considered one of the most dysfunctional and least productive in decades, the 113th was sworn in amid the customary pomp and circumstance in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
John Boehner, beleaguered speaker of the House of Representatives, narrowly held onto his job despite his icy relations with the Tea Party members of his Republican caucus.
Many of them are miffed about the deal struck with Democrats earlier this week on the fiscal cliff, the Congress-imposed Jan. 1 deadline that would have hit Americans with a double whammy of widespread tax increases and deep spending cuts. Tea Party conservatives wanted wide-ranging spending cuts to be part of the deal now, not in a few weeks time.
“In our hearts, we know it is wrong to pass on this debt to our kids and grandkids,” Boehner said in his acceptance speech. “Now we have to be willing, truly willing, to make this right.”
There are 90 new legislators in the new Congress, which boasts a record number of women, gays, Asian-Americans and Latinos.
Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, has also become the first black senator from the South in more than 130 years. He was appointed to replace Jim DeMint, who resigned late last year to become president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
But apart from a demographic makeup that reflects the changing face of America, there seemed scant cause for celebration on Thursday as Democrats and Republicans continued to clash about how to bring down the country’s mammoth national debt.
Just days after the 112th Congress lurched to its miserable end, the new Congress is heading into battle, set to renew brawls over $109 billion in spending cuts and raising the U.S. debt ceiling in the next few weeks.
President Barack Obama signed a bill into law this week that prevented the country from careening off the fiscal cliff by raising taxes on America’s wealthiest citizens while maintaining current taxation levels for the middle class.
But what’s known as the sequester — the mammoth package of automatic spending cuts to federal departments and agencies — has been kicked down the road until the end of February. So, too, has the decision on the debt ceiling.
Before rejoining his family on holiday in Hawaii earlier this week, Obama issued a stern warning to Congress.
“While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they’ve passed,” he said.
Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, responded testily in an opinion piece on Yahoo News.
“I have news for him,” McConnell wrote. “The moment that he and virtually every elected Democrat in Washington signed off on the terms of the current arrangement, it was the last word on taxes. That debate is over.”
One of the first orders of business for the new Congress is voting Friday on a US$60 billion aid package for the victims of superstorm Sandy.
A decision by Boehner to scrub a vote on the package earlier this week prompted a full-blown meltdown by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, himself a Republican eyeing a run for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016. The latest outbreak of internal Republican warfare isn’t expected to be the last.
“There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these victims: the House majority and their speaker,” Christie said earlier this week.
“It was disappointing and disgusting to watch.”
Although Boehner was elected to a second term as House speaker, nine Republicans defected, three didn’t vote and one voted “present.” That brought Boehner to the brink of having to go to a second ballot against Democrat Nancy Pelosi; he earned 220 votes, only three more than needed to hold onto his job.