Published January 05, 2011
With the pomp and circumstance behind him, newly-minted House Speaker John Boehner wasted no time in rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the business of governing -- and the first order of business for the 112th Congress was setting the ground rules.
New House Majority Leader Eric Cantor introduced a rules package that covers scheduling (how many days worked, when votes can and cannot occur), the terms and conditions for debating bills (all bills will cite their constitutional authority and be posted online for 72 hours before a vote) and allows electronic devices, such as BlackBerries and iPads on the floor of the lower chamber.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, will have the authority to set the top line budget numbers for the year -- a change from the previous process, which went through the Budget Committee.
The package passed 240-191.
One of the first acts of the Republican-controlled House was to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.
Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.
The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime dispute.
Democrats extended those voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House. Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995, and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control in 2007.
Virgin Islands Delegate Donna Christensen calls the Republican action "a very undemocratic way" to start the new Congress.
Earlier Wednesday, in an emotionally charged moment during the opening act of the 112th Congress, a teary-eyed Boehner took the gavel from Nancy Pelosi, officially becoming the 61st House speaker.
In his speech to fellow lawmakers, the Ohio Republican vowed to give the government back to the people, renew focus on the Constitution and provide transparency, honesty and accountability.
"Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress," he said. "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."
Boehner, who has earned a reputation for shedding tears, did not cry during his speech. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich, administered the oath of office.
Before she relinquished the gavel, Pelosi, who remains the leader of the House Democrats, said her party will work with Republicans to help create jobs.
"When the new speaker of the House, John Boehner, and the new Republican majority, come forward with solutions that address these American challenges, you will find in us a willing partner," she said.
Lawmakers voted for Boehner as House speaker with 241 of 242 Republican votes. Boehner didn't vote. However, outgoing Pelosi faced a minor revolt from several of the 193 Democrats now in the minority.
While it's traditional for the minority to vote its leader as speaker, even on the assumption the leader will lose, Pelosi was not the choice of 19 lawmakers. It was the largest number of defections for any formal candidate for speaker since January 1997 when nine Republicans voted against House Speaker Newt Gingrich. At that time, four voted for another member and five members voted present.
Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a Blue Dog moderate who has led the charge against Pelosi pulled away most of this votes, including his own as well as those of Reps. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Jim Matheson of Utah, Michael Michaud of Maine, Mike Ross of Arkansas, Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
Elsewhere, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona voted for Georgia Rep. John Lewis while Reps. Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza of California voted for each other. Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois voted for Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur while Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin voted for Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia voted present.
Typical for Congress, though perhaps not on opening day, as the first call of the House was ordered, new and returning lawmakers went past the 15 minutes allotted for a quorum vote. In the end, 434 of the 435 members voted present. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who is starting his 13th term, was absent though the reason was not immediately known. He also missed the vote for House speaker.
Over in the Senate, lawmakers started their session with new members signing an oath book declaring their allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Vice President Joe Biden then started swearing in members four at a time, starting with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Before Congress convened, a reception was held for Boehner, who was joined by 10 of his 11 siblings at his swearing in as the 53rd person to take the post of House speaker. Hundreds of festive and loud supporters silenced as soon as the House went into session and the prayer and pledge were read.
But even as they enjoyed the pomp of opening ceremonies -- accompanied by family on the House floor -- Republicans were thinking about their first actions in the majority, including budget cutting and a vote to repeal the health care law.
Though Republicans pledged to cut $100 billion in the first year that is not obligated to entitlements, defense and homeland security, they began backtracking almost immediately, noting that they only have half a budget year to work with since government is operating on a continuing resolution until March and the budget year is Oct. 1-Sept. 30. With little more than half a budget year, that's only half of the cuts they say they will get.
"House Republicans will continue to work to reduce spending for the final six months of this fiscal year -- bringing non-security discretionary spending back to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels -- yielding taxpayers significant savings and starting a new era of cost cutting in Washington," Conor Sweeney, spokesman for new House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, told Fox News.
House Republicans have also pledged to cut $35 million from their own congressional budget. Rep. Kristie Noem, R-S.D., considered an up and coming leader and Tea Party budget hawk, said Republicans will "step forward and start cutting money and they're going to start with themselves."
Republicans were also facing a backlash from the transportation industry for a potential rules change that proposes eliminating the firewall in the Highway Trust Fund, supporters say so that money isn't spent that doesn't need to be.
But opponents say the rule is a trick to make the books looked more balanced since Republicans have imposed a rule that requires cuts to the budget when spending is approved elsewhere.
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director John Horsely says the proposed rule could cost the economy 200,000 jobs and is a major defeat for "transportation and infrastructure" advocates, especially when unemployment in the construction sector is at 18 percent.
A letter sent last week by AASHTO and 20 other transportation industry groups noted that when this was attempted in the 1990s before the firewall was instituted, "the balances in the trust fund soared, while much-needed infrastructure investment was deferred."
""The House Republican-proposed rules package for the 112th Congress, unfortunately, would sever the user-financed basis of the Highway Trust Fund, and make annual federal highway and transit investments subject to the whims of the appropriations process," the letter reads. "In so doing, this proposal would inject further uncertainty into an already destabilized U.S. transportation construction marketplace."
Stock in transportation construction companies has been dropping as a result of the proposed Republican rules package, opponents contend. An amendment to salvage the firewall was offered by Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio on Tuesday, but was defeated in the rules committee.
Fox News' Chad Pergram, Craig Schulz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.