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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the first day of the 113th Congress

Today is the start of the 113th Congress, and the action kicks off at noon when both the House and Senate return.

Once the House formally ends the 112th session, House Clerk Karen Haas will convene the House and presides from the dais. First up is a quorum call, establishing the membership.

Then we get the nominations for speaker. The Republicans will nominate John Boehner and the Democrats Nancy Pelosi. The full House votes for speaker. They call each member's name alphabetically and they respond by name.

The House starts with 433 members -- short of the full 435 due to two vacancies. The breakdown is 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats.

The next part is important:

It is very unlikely that the House will pick a speaker besides Boehner, but not out of the question. But ... the House could kick the election of speaker to a second ballot.

We expect the vote for speaker to begin around 12:45 p.m. ET or so.

Here's the troublesome scenario for Boehner:

The House clerk states that when picking a speaker, "a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast - which may be less than a majority of the full House because of vacancies, absentee Members or Members who vote 'present.' If no candidate receives the majority of votes, the roll call is repeated until a majority is reached and the Speaker is elected."

With the GOP's new majority, an "absolute majority" means Boehner can't have 17 Republicans vote for someone else. They don't count the members who vote "present." But they do count them if they vote for someone else. Say there are 17 Republican defections. Boehner still collects 216 votes and Pelosi presumably garners 200. But Boehner isn't speaker if those 17 Republicans vote for someone else. In other words, Boehner has a plurality but failed to reach an absolute majority (50.1 percent) of all lawmakers who cast a vote for a name.

The House is then compelled to continue to vote until it taps a speaker.

They vote over and over and over again.

In fact, there hasn't been a second ballot for speaker since 1923. That House voted nine times between Dec. 3 and Dec. 5 in a four-way contest between Speaker Frederick Gillett, R-Mass., House Minority Leader Finis Garrett, D-Tenn., and Reps. Henry Cooper, R-Wis., and Martin Madden, R-Ill. Cooper had nowhere near the votes that Gillett had in his camp. But he commanded enough support to dilute the GOP vote and keep Gillett from gaining an absolute majority. Cooper finally dropped out after the eighth ballot.

In 1849, the House burned an entire month trying to select a speaker before settling on Howell Cobb, D-Ga. But that was nothing compared to 1856. In that instance, the House devoted two months to electing Nathaniel Banks, D-Mass., on the 133rd ballot.

Here's the question: Do 21 Republican nay votes on one of Boehner's spending cut bills -- coupled with what insiders say is 40 to 50 nays on the tax cut measure that was pulled -- translate to at least 17 votes for other candidates for speaker in January?

That's unclear -- mainly because there's no one else running for speaker. Sources say it's entirely possible that members like Eric Cantor, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Reps. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, could collect votes in an organic, non-organized process on the floor. But just because someone was a nay on Tuesday doesn't mean they'll vote for someone other than Boehner.

Remember that Pelosi had 19 defections in January, 2011. So 17 is not out of the question to get to a second ballot for Boehner.

If all goes swimmingly for Boehner, he could be announced as the new speaker at 1:45 p.m. The new minority leader (presumably Pelosi) and the new speaker (presumably Boehner) speak to the House around 2 p.m.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving House member of all time, will administer the oath to the Speaker around 2:20 p.m.

The speaker then swears in the new House in the chamber around 2:30 p.m.

The House then begins ceremonial swearings-in for all members in the Rayburn Room around 3:15 p.m. This is an extended photo op with the speaker. The members and their families pose with the speaker doing a mock-swearing-in. If Boehner is elected, look for him to try to entice camera shy kids by quacking like a duck. He did this two years ago.

Now to the Senate.

Senate meets at noon. Vice President Joe Biden (in his role as president of the Senate) will preside and swear in the new members in the chamber.

Biden will first stop around 11:30 a.m. on the Senate steps as Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., climbs the Senate steps in his first return to the Capitol since suffering a stroke a year ago.

The Senate will also swear in Sen.-designate Tim Scott, R-S.C., to succeed Republican Sen. Jim DeMint who resigned to head the Heritage Foundation. He becomes the seventh black senator in history and the first black Republican senator since Sen. Ed Brooke, R-Mass., in 1979.

There has been a lot of chatter about Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., using the "nuclear option" to drastically alter the Senate rules to alter some forms of filibusters. The idea is that Reid COULD alter the rules, with only 51 yeas ... right after the Senate starts. Permanent rules changes require 67 votes. But if the Senate hasn't truly started and has no rules, 51 is all that is necessary.

The bottom line: It is doubtful the nuclear option will happen today.

Here's guidance from Reid's office:

"Senator Reid is negotiating with Senator McConnell with the goal of producing a package of reforms that will make the Senate work more efficiently. While these negotiations take place, Senator Reid will preserve the option to make rule changes with a simple majority vote. To that end, the Senate will remain on the first legislative day by recessing instead of adjourning as those talks continue."

What this means, is that Reid preserves the first day. .. perhaps by weeks. That's not that rare, and happens periodically for many sundry legislative reasons. But operationally, it means that Reid has the votes to change the rules, so he's trying to work out a compromise with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to not go nuclear.

Specifically, many would like to avoid filibusters on the "motion to proceed" or efforts to block the Senate from at least calling up a bill. They would preserve filibusters on ending debate on legislation, meaning you'd have to get 60 votes to cut off a filibuster. But you wouldn't have to get 60 votes to START debate. That's really what has slowed the Senate down the past few years.

Also, many would prefer to have actual filibusters where members actually hold the floor (Jimmy Stewart style), and not just object to block something.

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