Anne Easby-Smith, left, and Trace Robbins, right, who work for House Speaker John Boehner, help to prepare the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill, where members of the House will pose for pictures at an oath of office ceremony with Boehner.(Photo: J. Scott, Applewhite)
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Congress prepared Thursday to welcome
dozens of new members to the harsh reality of a bitterly divided
government and big fights in the coming weeks over how to make sure the
country can continue to pay its bills. The top Republican in Congress
was expected to keep his job, despite bruising fights in recent days
with members of his own party over fiscal issues.
Congress, which has been criticized as the least productive one in more
than 60 years, staggered to an end this week by passing a limited deal
to avoid the worst of the so-called "fiscal cliff," a self-imposed Jan. 1
deadline for widespread tax increases and deep spending cuts to take
hold. After near rebellion by tax-opposing conservatives in the
Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the deal passed late
Tuesday to raise taxes on the richest Americans while protecting the
middle class and the poor.
The new 113th Congress now faces
similar battles over raising the country's $16.4 trillion borrowing
limit and those $109 billion in spending cuts for the military and
domestic programs, which this week's deal delayed by just two months.
new Congress has the same power balance as the outgoing one: Democrats
control the Senate, and Republicans control the House.
Republican John Boehner is expected to remain as House speaker, even
after being blasted by party members Wednesday for putting off a vote on
a $60 billion aid package for New York and New Jersey communities hit
hard by the deadly Superstorm Sandy two months ago. Boehner smoothed
down anger by promising a vote on some of that aid Friday, with another
vote on the rest on Jan. 15.
As President Barack Obama secured a
second term in the November elections, Democrats tightened their grip on
the Senate for a 55-45 edge. That ensures that Sen. Harry Reid will
remain in charge. Reid had a bad week himself, after his frustrated
Republican counterpart in the Senate instead reached out to Vice
President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran, to put together the eventual
fiscal cliff deal.
Republicans keep their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 235-199.
new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the
dysfunctional 112th Congress. The small-government tea party group
within the Republican ranks insists on fiscal discipline in the face of
growing deficits, and it has 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.
"We can only hope for
more help," said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. "Any time you have new
members arriving, you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and
kind of a vitality that is needed. We hope that they're coming eager to
work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first
and not be bogged down ideologically."
The next two months will be
crucial, with tough economic issues looming. Congress put off for just
eight weeks the automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs
that were due to begin with the new year. The question of raising the
nation's borrowing authority also must be decided. Another round of ugly
negotiations between Obama and Congress is not far off.
newly elected senators include Rep. Tim Scott, the first black
Republican in decades. The Senate now has three Hispanics - Democratic
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida
and one of the new members, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. There will be
20 women in the 100-member Senate, the highest number yet.
least one longtime Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is
expected to be departing in a few weeks after being nominated by Obama
to be secretary of state once Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down. That
opens the door to former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, the only incumbent
senator to lose in November's elections, to possibly make a bid to
return to Washington.
Eighty-two freshmen join the House - 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. Women will total 81 in the 435-member body