WASHINGTON – Claiming power beneath the Capitol dome, resurgent Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives on Wednesday as the 112th Congress convened in an era of economic uncertainty. Dozens of tea party-backed lawmakers took office in both houses, eager to cut spending and reduce government's reach.
"The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions," said newly elected House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi and transformed instantly into the nation's most powerful Republican in a new era of divided government.
Both the House and the Senate convened at the constitutionally mandated hour of noon for a day of pageantry and bipartisan flourishes that contrasted sharply with the fierceness of the midterm elections that set the new roll of lawmakers.
In the Senate, where Democrats retain control, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada selected retired Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt to accompany him when he took the oath for a new term. In the House, children and grandchildren squirmed in the laps of their elders, less than transfixed at the historic events unfolding around them.
Republicans hold a 242-193 conservatives' majority in the House and have pledged to challenge President Barack Obama both with legislation and with their power to investigate. The first salvo is expected next week, a bill to repeal the sweeping health care law that Democrats pushed to passage 10 months ago and have vowed to defend.
Reid signaled as much, and more, in a speech marking the beginning of a new two-year Congress. "We have to do even more to help middle-class families, to create jobs, to hasten our energy independence, to improve our children's education and to fix our broken immigration system," he said.
Within a few hours of the opening gavel, Democrats unveiled a plan to limit the ability of Republicans to filibuster their legislation. No resolution is expected for weeks.
Sixteen blocks away, Obama seemed content to renew old battles in some areas at the same time he calls for bipartisanship in others. The White House resubmitted numerous appointments left over from 2010 for Senate confirmation, including four nominees for federal judgeships blocked by Republicans last year.
Senate Republicans gained six seats in last fall's elections, and their leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the voters had made it clear they "want lawmakers to cut Washington, tackle the debt, rein in government and to help create the right conditions for private sector growth."
The day's events unfolded as the economy, which was the dominant issue in the elections, showed signs of increased strength as it emerges from the worst recession in eight decades. Even so, unemployment remains at nearly 10 percent, a historically high level, and a problem that politicians of both parties have vowed to tackle.
Additionally, instead of merely opposing Obama's every proposal, as they did in 2009 and 2010, House Republicans in particular must compromise with him if they are to show results in their drive to cut spending. Yet their eagerness to vote quickly on repealing the health care bill is in line with a no-compromise position articulated by the tea party forces that helped propel many GOP challengers to victory.
For his part, Obama will be forced to compromise with Republicans, much as he did in last month's lame duck session of Congress when compromise legislation was approved to avert an increase in income taxes, enact a cut in Social Security taxes and extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
"The big changes today are of course happening across the dome," McConnell said in his remarks, "and I'd like to welcome the many new Republican members of Congress who've come to Washington to change the way things are done around here." With that, he walked across the Capitol to witness Boehner's moment of triumph.
Given to displays of emotion, Boehner paused to dab at his eyes with a handkerchief as he made his way to the speaker's rostrum. His was an unlikely ascension, capping two decades in Congress in which the 61-year-old Ohioan held and then lost a leadership position when Republicans were last in a majority. He re-emerged as leader of a dispirited minority in 2006.
Unlike Newt Gingrich, whose style bordered on frenetic when he led Republicans to power in 1994, Boehner has been careful to strike a humbler pose as he works to keep faith with the anti-government voters who supported the party's candidates.
"The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. This includes this gavel," he said, as outgoing Speaker Pelosi handed over a gavel that symbolized his authority.
On their first day in power, House Republicans pushed through a series of rules changes they said would make the House more accessible to the public and enhance the rights of minority lawmakers.
The Thursday agenda includes cutting funding of lawmakers' offices, committees' budgets and leadership staff by 5 percent, for a savings estimated at $35 million.
The first volley in Obama's direction is expected next week, when Republicans advance a bill to repeal the health care overhaul that Democrats passed last March after months of struggle.
Separately, one committee chairman has written executives in several industries asking them to suggest government regulations that might be eliminated.
"In fiscal year 2010, federal agencies promulgated 43 major new regulations," wrote Rep. Darrell Issa of California. "As a trade organization comprised of members that must comply with the regulatory state, I ask for your assistance in identifying existing and proposed regulations that have negatively impacted job growth in your members' industry."
After four years of wielding power, Pelosi sat with a smile frozen on her face and a granddaughter, Madeleine, on her lap during a lengthy roll call of lawmakers that sealed Boehner's election as speaker. Republicans had turned her into a political target during the campaign, and her decision to return as minority leader caused grumbling among Democrats that was evident when 19 of them declined to support her for speaker. A 20th, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, pointedly skipped the day's events.
In the moments before she handed Boehner the gavel, Pelosi listed the benefits the Democrats claim for the health care bill Republicans want to repeal, saying "children with pre-existing conditions can get coverage" and seniors pay less for their prescription drugs.
There were personal milestones aplenty during the day.
Rep. Allen West, a conservative Republican from Florida, became the first member of his party to join the Congressional Black Caucus in more than a decade. And Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a liberal Democrat from Maryland, took the oath for a fifth term and became the longest-serving woman in Senate history.
There were 94 new House members in all including 85 Republicans, many of them helped to victory in last fall's elections by tea party supporters. Sixteen newcomers took the oath of office in the Senate, most of them Republican, as well. Among them was Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose victory in last year's Republican primary was an early indications of the fed-up-with-government mood that ultimately swept the Democrats from power in the House and eroded their strength in the Senate.