By Debbi Wilgoren and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 5:32 PM
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), taking the gavel Wednesday as the new speaker of the House, promised to work for fiscal responsibility while offering "openness" to the chamber's Democratic minority.
But Democrats promptly charged that a new rules package introduced by the Republicans would lead to trillions of dollars in additional debt and would symbolically disenfranchise House delegates from the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
In the Senate, meanwhile, where a reduced Democratic majority witnessed the swearing-in of newly elected and reelected senators, the chamber began debating a Democratic proposal to curb what sponsors called the abuse of the filibuster, a parliamentary tactic used to impede floor votes on legislation. Escalated use of the filibuster has essentially meant that most major legislation now requires 60 votes for passage, instead of a simple majority.
Charging that "the current system has been abused, and abused gratuitously," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a floor speech, "The filibuster in particular has been abused in truly unprecedented fashion."
"The Senate is broken," Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in defending the proposal. "Here in the Senate, open and honest debate has been replaced with secret backroom deals and partisan gridlock." He said the proposal does not seek to abolish the filibuster but to curb the misuse of it. A vote was not expected Wednesday.
As the GOP formally took control of the House on the opening day of the 112th Congress, Boehner, 61, said in his maiden speech as speaker: "Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required."
The election of Boehner to succeed Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), the first woman speaker, was a formality following his designation by Republicans in November as their nominee for the post. The GOP captured the majority in the House in the midterm elections and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate, giving President Obama a divided Congress to work with as he enters the third year of his term.
Nominated for the speaker's post by the Democrats was Pelosi, who became speaker in 2007 following a Democratic victory in the November 2006 midterm elections. Some Democratic conservatives and moderates in the Blue Dog Coalition voted for other candidates, notably Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), as a way of registering their disapproval of Pelosi, although no formal alternative nomination was presented.
The vote for Boehner over Pelosi was 241 to 173. Nineteen Democratic lawmakers withheld their support from Pelosi, instead voting present or for other candidates. Shuler garnered 11 of those votes. Two lawmakers - Boehner and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) - did not vote, according to an official tally.
After taking an oversized gavel from Pelosi as the new speaker, Boehner pledged to cut spending and said, "We will start by cutting Congress's own budget." The new GOP House leadership has set a vote for Thursday to reduce the office and staff expenses of lawmakers and committees by 5 percent, saving $35 million over the next nine months.
Boehner promised the new Democratic minority "openness" and said he hoped to rebuild the public's trust in Congress.
"No longer can we kick the can down the road," Boehner declared. "The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions."
The American people "have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them," Boehner said. "That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people's House. This is their Congress. It's about them, not about us."
In introducing Boehner as the new speaker, Pelosi said: "Our most important job is to fight for American jobs. . . . And so Democrats will judge what comes before Congress by whether it creates jobs, strengthens our middle class, and reduces the deficit - not burdening future generations with debt.
When Boehner and the new GOP majority "come forward with solutions that address these American challenges, you will find us a willing partner," she said.
As Pelosi acknowledged the new speaker's wife, Debbie Boehner, in the audience, an emotional Boehner wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.
After the speeches, however, signs of the old partisanship resurfaced in debate over the new House rules package. It includes a GOP provision to strip D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and five other Democratic representatives - from Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico - of their ability to vote in the House's Committee of the Whole, which includes the entire membership of the House. Delegates have been allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole since 2007, when a new Democratic majority restored that right. Traditionally, delegates are permitted to vote in committees, although they are barred from participating in floor votes in the full House.
The rules package also includes provisions designed to curb spending. It replaces the Democrats' "pay-as-you-go" rules, known as "pay-go," with what Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) called "cut-go."
"Rather than pair spending with . . . job-killing tax increases," he said, "we will pair it with spending cuts."
But Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the new minority whip, said the rules package "authorizes trillions of dollars of new debt without paying for it."
He also said he would seek to amend the rules to maintain the right of delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole, thereby returning "this symbol of respect, this symbol of inclusion, this symbol of colleagueship . . . to our six representatives of American citizens."
The House rules package later easily passed a procedural vote.
Day 1 of the 112th Congress began with prayers and lots of promises: to rein in the federal government, to repeal the health-care law, to fix the economy, to work together - or not.
With the swearing-in Wednesday afternoon of the House members - including 87 new Republican members and nine new Democrats - control of the chamber officially shifted to the GOP.
And while Republicans will swiftly seek to undo major aspects of Obama's legislative agenda, Democrats - with few other options - are pledging to continue the compromise-oriented approach that guided their unexpectedly productive lame-duck session in December.
Wednesday's schedule of events began with a private prayer service at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill that was attended by, among others, Boehner, Pelosi, new Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and new Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md).
The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, the House chaplain, opened the service, which was closed to the press. Pelosi and Cantor read selections of Scripture, according to the program.
Boehner, 61, a Roman Catholic with working-class roots, was the first to arrive at the church, CNN reported. He was accompanied by his wife, Debbie, their two daughters, Lindsay and Tricia, 10 of his 11 siblings and other family members.
According to CNN, Boehner told reporters camped outside his house earlier in the day that his top priority was "to fix a broken institution," adding: "The sun is out, and the American people are in charge."
At midday, the first order of business in the House was formally electing Boehner as speaker. Pelosi later addressed the lawmakers to introduce Boehner, who delivered his own speech before taking the oath of office and administering the oath to the rest of the lawmakers en masse.
"Our aim will be to give government back to the people," Boehner said. He added, "We will part with some of the rituals that have come to characterize this institution under majorities Republican and Democratic alike.
"We will dispense with the conventional wisdom that bigger bills are always better; that fast legislating is good legislating; that allowing additional amendments and open debate makes the legislative process 'less efficient' than our forefathers intended."
The rest of the afternoon in the House will be taken up by photo-op swearing-in ceremonies for individual House members.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Vice President Biden administered the oath of office for senators elected or reelected in November. Biden swore in the new or returning senators by alphabetical order in groups of four.