After two years marked with partisan gridlock, the Senate kicked off the new Congress on Thursday with 13 new members and welcomed back Sen. Mark Kirk, who made an emotional return to the Capitol after suffering a stroke almost a year ago.
Senators gathered outside the Capitol’s East Front to cheer Mr. Kirk, Illinois Republican, as he slowly but steadily climbed the 45 steps leading to the second-floor Senate chamber. He was assisted by Vice President Joseph R. Biden and close friend, Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, called Mr. Kirk “an inspiration to us.”
“We are all grateful for his recovery,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor. “Sen. Kirk, you have been missed.”
Mr. Kirk’s return gives Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, a valuable vote he missed last year. The Democrats, meanwhile, strengthened their control of the chamber by picking up a net gain of two seats in the November elections for a slim 53-seat majority. Two independents, including new Sen. Angus S. King Jr. of Maine, will caucus with Democrats.
The vice president, whose duties include serving as Senate president, presided over a cheerful swearing-in ceremony in the Senate chamber, where spectators in a full gallery peered down from above and applauded.
Adding to the optimism of the day was Mr. Reid’s decision to postpone an attempt at filibuster reform until later this month, a move intended to buy time to broker a compromise with Mr. McConnell.
Democrats long have complained about Mr. McConnell’s frequent use of the procedural move to block Democratic legislation, while the minority leader has countered he has no choice because Mr. Reid often refuses to allow Republican amendments.
The Senate’s percolating fight over the federal government’s spending habits and ballooning debt will slog on with the addition of high-profile newcomers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Harvard professor and consumer advocate, and rising conservative star and tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.
“I’m happy to work with anybody, if we’re solving the problems. I will work with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians — I’ve joked I’ll work with Martians,” said Mr. Cruz, who told reporters he would have voted against the compromise Congress struck to avert the “fiscal cliff.”
Other additions to the minority include Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who comes directly from the House after six terms, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who served in the state legislature before scoring an upset in the Republican primary and defeating former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey in the general election.
Newly sworn Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, said he felt “about the same” immediately after his switch from the House to the north side of the Capitol to replace retired Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
Like his conservative colleagues, Mr. Scott said the fiscal cliff debate was insufficient and did not strike at the heart of the nation’s fiscal house.
“It was all about revenues,” he said. “And there’s no way to solve the problems of this nation by having a revenue conversation.”
A pair of new Democratic senators who also transitioned from the House, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, said they hope to build on any bipartisan feelings left over from the fiscal cliff deal that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate before it was sent to a more fractured House.
“There is an understanding and a recognition on my part that we need to reduce spending, we need to get back to balanced budgets, we need to reduce the deficit,” Mr. Donnelly said. “I hope I can be a part of making that happen.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat who won a hard-fought campaign against fellow former governor George Allen, said he is ready to get his “sleeves rolled up” and use his budgetary experience as former governor of the Old Dominion. He said the Senate’s ability to agree on a compromise bill over the New Year’s holiday “sends a good signal, but there’s much more to do.”
But Mr. McConnell said the fiscal cliff fight gives Republicans momentum and bargaining leverage in future spending-cut debates heading to the new Congress.
“President Obama declared the other night that those he calls ‘rich’ are now paying their ‘fair share,’” the Kentucky Republican said. “The president got his revenue. Now, it’s time to turn squarely to the real problem, which is spending.”