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A changing of the gavel as 112th Congress is sworn in

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 12:00 AM

The House and the Senate have a split personality by design, but Wednesday's debut of the 112th Congress revealed a stark contrast between the two chambers that could define the direction of every major debate over the next two years.

At one end of the Capitol, a House brimming with fresh faces and ambitious goals was sworn into office, its exuberant new Republican leaders pledging to derail President Obama's agenda and dramatically scale back the size of the federal government.

At the other end, a more somber Senate convened, its Democratic majority intact - albeit much smaller after the November elections. Whereas many of the House freshmen are new to politics, the 13 senators in the class of 2010 are a more seasoned lot. Their first order of business: a debate of filibuster rules.

The two lawmakers sworn in to lead the House and Senate are archetypes of the moment. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the son of a bar owner, rode the tea party wave to one of the biggest midterm election victories in recent history and is eager to deliver by repealing health-care reform and making deep cuts to federal programs. Immediately after Boehner, 61, accepted the speaker's gavel from Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now the minority leader, the House began debating changes to budget rules that would force spending reductions.

"Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress," Boehner said in his acceptance speech. "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 to carry out their instructions."

The new Senate leader is the old Senate leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the son of a miner, who narrowly won a fifth term in November against a tea party opponent. As he opened the new Senate, Reid, 70, pleaded for his Republican colleagues to end what he called their obstructionist ways, setting the tone for coming battles over deficit reduction, the war in Afghanistan, health-care reform and taxes.

"The most important change we can make in the 112th Congress is to work better and more closely as teammates, not as opponents - as partners, not as partisans - to fulfill our constitutional responsibility to pursue a more perfect union," Reid said.

The day's crescendo came shortly past 2 p.m., after the formal roll-call vote for the gavel concluded with Boehner receiving 241 votes and Pelosi 173, ending her historic four-year reign as the nation's first female House speaker.

Pelosi - whose fate has been sealed since Nov. 2, when Democrats lost 63 seats and the majority - held two grandchildren on her lap as the House clerk called the name of every member. She waved to Democrats who symbolically supported her continued tenure despite concerns about whether she's the right face for the party.

Pelosi strode to the speaker's chair for a final speech, congratulating Boehner but also proclaiming victory in pushing a progressive agenda. "I now pass this gavel and the sacred trust that goes with it to the new speaker. God bless you, Speaker Boehner," she said to cheers from the chamber.

Despite the confidence of the new House leaders, few of the items on their agenda are likely to end up in law as conceived - beginning with the GOP effort to repeal Obama's health-care law, set for a final vote next Wednesday. Reid has vowed to block the effort in the Senate. But Senate Democrats face a similar problem with their priorities, including immigration reform, which many of the House GOP freshmen oppose.

A secondary plotline for the 112th Congress will be the potential divide within party ranks, as both Boehner and Reid face ambitious backbenchers trying to shake up the systems that the two leaders have come to master.

A group of Senate Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, who provided the critical margins for Obama's early agenda, has begun an effort to change the chamber's filibuster rules to limit the minority's power to stall or block legislation. Reid, who as minority leader five years ago beat back a similar effort by Republicans, has expressed support for the junior Democrats, but he is in private negotiations with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reach a compromise that would nominally change the rules without diluting the potency of the filibuster.

The duo hopes to reach a deal later this month, when the Senate returns from a scheduled break.

Boehner, who came into office 20 years ago as something of a rabble-rouser, now must contend with 87 newcomers, dozens of whom have never held elective office and who ran on a mantra of opposing Democrats, not compromising with them.

"Glad this part is over. Now it's time to get to work," said Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), a millionaire businessman who once served as a small-town mayor.

"November was a referendum. We're not happy with Washington," said Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), who was a gospel-singing farmer from Frog Jump.

In a sign of the times, the GOP side of the House exceeded its seating capacity, leaving many in the aisle. Fincher, who claimed the seat of retired congressman John Tanner (D-Tenn.), ended up sitting on the Democratic side.

The Senate now has a near balance in its chamber's desks, a far cry from the cramped quarters that Reid used to joke about on his side of the aisle in 2009, when Democrats held 60 seats.

The Senate's Republican expansion brought only a few true outsiders and many more veterans of past Congresses and presidential administrations.

Among the notables: Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), a former House member, White House budget director and U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush; Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a former House leader; and Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.), a former congressman, senator, ambassador and top Washington lobbyist, were sworn in after easily winning seats that were once considered toss-ups. Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), a former congressman, recently served as president of the conservative group Club for Growth.

These experienced freshmen mingled on the Senate floor with the confidence of longtime committee chairmen. Portman, a fiscal expert who is well liked in both parties, greeted a parade of new colleagues who approached to wish him well. Blunt, who learned the legislative trade while working alongside the sharply partisan former congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), exchanged a few private words with Vice President Biden.

Other newcomers took time to soak in their surroundings. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a former businessman who defeated Sen. Russell Feingold (D), opened the lid of his mahogany desk to explore its interior. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who also won her first election in November, scanned the packed visitors gallery.

The Senate Class of 2010 seems downright youthful, compared with many of the veterans of the chamber. Sens. Ayotte, Toomey, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are younger than 50. Rubio, a star of the tea party movement, is 39.

All around them were reminders of the Senate's past. Retired senators milled around during the opening day ceremonies. Former vice president Dan Quayle chatted up past colleagues. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, who was a Republican senator and governor and one of President Ronald Reagan's closest friends, escorted Reid to the dais for his swearing-in.

"They say you can never step in the same river twice. New water flows in, replacing the old and continually renewing the river," Reid said as he marked the new era. "The Senate is the same."

murrays@washpost.com kanep@washpost.com

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