WASHINGTON: The U.S. Congress Thursday welcomed dozens of new members to the harsh reality of a bitterly divided government and tough battles in the coming weeks over how to make sure the country can continue to pay its bills.
The top Republican in Congress narrowly kept his job, despite bruising fights in recent days with members of his own party over fiscal issues.
Despite a rocky few weeks during the fiscal cliff fight, John Boehner won re-election as speaker of the House of Representatives and will lead Republicans as they take on the White House over federal spending.
Boehner beat Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi by 220-192 in the speakership vote on the first day of a new Congress.
The outgoing Congress, which was criticized as the least productive one in more than 60 years, staggered to an end this week by passing a limited deal to avoid the worst of the so-called fiscal cliff, a self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline for widespread tax increases and deep spending cuts to take hold. After near rebellion by tax-opposing conservatives in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the deal passed late Tuesday to raise taxes on the richest Americans while protecting the middle class and the poor.
President Barack Obama signed the bill early Thursday.
The new 113th Congress now faces similar battles over raising the country’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit and those $109 billion in spending cuts for the military and domestic programs, which this week’s deal delayed by just two months.
Only Congress has the power to raise the debt limit. Obama this week said he’s not going to negotiate the issue, despite Republicans’ desire for more spending cuts than Democrats may want.
The new Congress has the same power balance as the outgoing one: Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans control the House.
Boehner received enough votes from House members to remain as speaker, even after being blasted by party members Wednesday for putting off a vote on a $60 billion aid package for New York and New Jersey communities hit hard by the deadly Superstorm Sandy two months ago. Boehner smoothed down anger by promising a vote on some of that aid Friday, with another vote on the rest on Jan. 15.
Boehner’s acceptance speech addressed the need to fix the country’s massive debt. “The American Dream is in peril so long as its namesake is weighed down by this anchor of debt,” he said. “Break its hold, and we begin to set our economy free. Jobs will come home. Confidence will come back.”
As Obama secured a second term in the November elections, Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge. That ensures that Sen. Harry Reid will remain in charge. Reid had a bad week himself, after his frustrated Republican counterpart in the Senate instead reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran, to put together the eventual fiscal cliff deal.
Republicans keep their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 235-199.
The new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the dysfunctional 112th Congress. The small-government tea party group within the Republican ranks insists on fiscal discipline in the face of growing deficits, and it has pressed for deep cuts in spending as part of a reduced role for the federal government.
Democrats envision a government with enough resources to help the less fortunate and press for the wealthiest to pay more in taxes.
“We can only hope for more help,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. “Any time you have new members arriving, you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and kind of a vitality that is needed. We hope that they’re coming eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically.”