The 112th Congress gaveled open Wednesday with Republicans taking control of the House and immediately rewriting the chamber’s rules, making it easier to cut spending and taxes, harder to add new spending, and more open to voters who want to keep tabs on what lawmakers are doing.
The rules changes, spearheaded by newly elected Speaker John A. Boehner, mark a sharp departure from recent years, and pave the way for the Republicans to pass bills that extend the Bush-era tax cuts, slash government spending and repeal Democrats’ health care law - at least in the House.
“Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions,” said the Ohio Republican, who leads his party’s biggest House majority in decades by a margin of 242-to-193.
He also acknowledged the “great deal of scar tissue” he said has built up over partisan fights, presaging the head-butting he and his House colleagues will likely do over the next two years with the Senate, which also convened Wednesday as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. swore in 35 new and returning members, leaving Democrats in control, but with a much weaker 53-47 majority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who survived his own tough re-election fight in Nevada to return to lead Senate Democrats, called on senators to see one another as “teammates, not as opponents.” Democrats are trying to write rules changes to curb “abuses” of Senate traditions he said have allowed Republicans to block parts of the Democrats’ agenda.
They hope to hold a vote on those changes later this month.
President Obama wasted no time in pressing for action, resubmitting a number of nominees Republicans had blocked in the waning days of the last Congress, which ended in December with a flurry of activity.
Mr. Obama also received calls from congressional leaders informing him Congress had convened.
Both the House and Senate were packed for the ceremonial parts of the day, including the election of Mr. Boehner as speaker, which saw each House member stand individually and announce his vote by name.
But just hours later, the House viewing galleries were almost empty, and only a few members were on the floor as the debate began on the substantive agenda of the day, which included major rules changes that govern both spending and House operations.
On Thursday, the House will conduct a reading of the Constitution, which Republicans said is meant to underscore the limits the founding document placed on Congress.
One of the new House rules requires that every bill lawmakers submit for consideration be accompanied by a statement in the Congressional Record pointing to a specific constitutional power that would justify the proposed law.
Another new rule requires that bills be available online for 72 hours before lawmakers vote on them, which Republicans said will give voters the chance to read legislation and weigh in with their views.
But the biggest changes may be on the budget side.
Republicans have taken Democrats’ pay-as-you-go, or “pay-go,” rules and changed them into what the GOP calls “cut-as-you-go.” Under those changes, new spending would have to be “paid for” by other spending cuts, but tax cuts would not need to be offset.
The new rules also would streamline the process for repealing the new health care law by exempting the repeal bill from budget requirements.
Democrats said by carving tax cuts and health care out of the rules, Republicans aren’t serious about reducing the deficit.
“The American people did not bargain for a plan in the first 24 hours that would blow a hole in the deficit and expand the debt,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.
Democrats also blasted Republicans for announcing that amendments will not be allowed to the first major bill the House will debate, to repeal the health care law. Republicans had promised a more open process, but they said health care repeal was an exception, since the issue has already been repeatedly debated.
The new rules also limit the voting rights of delegates to Congress, including the District of Columbia’s representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat.
Under Democratic control during the past four years, delegates from the District and the territories were allowed to vote when the House resolved itself into the committee of the whole, which can vote to alter bills. They still could not vote during the regular House sessions needed to pass bills.
Republicans revoked their ability to vote in the committee of the whole.
“It is one thing not to have the vote; it is another to be stripped,” Mrs. Norton said.
One key test for leaders in both chambers will be how well they are able to keep their troops in line.
Mr. Boehner survived his first test, winning support for speaker from all 241 Republicans who voted Wednesday.
But former Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t fare as well. Nineteen Democrats defected on the vote, with 18 voting for one of several other Democrats and one voting “present.” It’s the worst showing for a party caucus’ nominee since 1923, and highlights simmering tensions after House Democrats’ disastrous showing in the November elections.
A Democratic aide said the vote was only “symbolic” and said House Democrats have taken steps to make their caucus more open to dissenting views. Still, the aide said voting against Mrs. Pelosi could be seen as a blow against party unity that would not sit well with some groups central to the party, including unions and minority rights activists.
Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat who garnered 11 of the protest votes, said he presented a middle-ground alternative between Mr. Boehner and Mrs. Pelosi.
“We need more moderate voices in Congress — on both sides of the political aisle — that represent the majority of Americans, not just the fringes on the right and left. That’s what this campaign was about,” he said.
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