As The Capitol Turns: Little Has Changed In Congress' New Season

NPR icon by David Welna
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This week saw both a frantic finale to the much-unloved 112th Congress and, hours later, the swearing in of the new 113th. The cast of lawmakers and their leaders is mostly unchanged. The same can be said for Capitol Hill's never-ending drama over taxes, deficits and spending.

What was arguably this week's most sensational congressional moment did not even take place in Washington. On Wednesday in Trenton, N.J., Republican Gov. Chris Christie blasted the GOP-led House for closing down the last Congress without even considering a Superstorm Sandy disaster relief bill.

"There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims," Christie said. "The House majority and their speaker, John Boehner."

Within hours, Boehner reversed course. He agreed to let the newly convened House take up part of the relief package, which it easily passed Friday, and consider the rest of the aid in 10 days.

So while House Republicans have vowed to cut spending, the first legislation this new Congress voted on could add $60 billion to the national debt. After Boehner was narrowly re-elected as speaker Thursday — despite a minor revolt by fellow Republicans — he acknowledged what a challenge his job has become.

"Public service was never meant to be an easy living," Boehner said. "Extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership."

Late in the evening of New Year's Day, Boehner did do something extraordinary for a Republican speaker: He brought the fiscal cliff bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate to the House floor for a vote, even though most Republicans opposed it.

Doing so broke an unwritten rule Republicans have operated under for years, which is that only those bills that have the support of the majority of the GOP majority get voted on. Most of the votes for the fiscal cliff bill came from House Democrats.

One of them was Washington state Rep. Jim McDermott, who praised Boehner: "He made the right judgment for the people and for the country, and if his crazies want to sit over on the sidelines and, you know, throw rocks or yell or scream or do whatever they want ... that's fine. But they're going to be more and more marginalized if John Boehner continues down this path of doing what's best for the American people."

But out on the windy front steps of the Capitol, conservative Ohio Republican Jim Jordan said Boehner's straying from the "majority of the majority" rule was just a one-off event.

"I think that was a unique situation, you know — midnight on New Year's Day, end of the session," he said. "I don't think you're going to see that in the future. ... I think you're going to see our conference come together around Republican and conservative principles."

Jordan said the next chance to do so will be when President Obama asks Congress to raise the debt ceiling, probably later next month. But the president said Tuesday he's having no more debt ceiling fights with Congress.

"While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed," he said.

Any more deficit reduction, the president added, will have to balance spending cuts with new revenue. GOP leaders on the Hill responded by declaring the revenue debate finished.

For Hill Republicans, it's now all about cutting spending, said congressional expert Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College.

"They believe that President Obama won a victory on taxes, and they're thirsting for a victory of their own," he said.

Indeed, the Senate's new No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, wrote Friday, "It may be necessary to partially shut down the government."

That brought a tart warning from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "I think Cornyn better be careful. That's a stupid thing to do. He's training for a fight; he's going to wind up losing it."

Meet the new Congress ... much like the old Congress.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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