Thu January 6, 2011

Congress's Celebration Complete, Sniping Resumes

Republicans roared into the majority in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, swearing in new members and giving a standing ovation to the new Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) turned over a super-sized gavel to Boehner, along with "the sacred trust that goes with it."

The mood was light, but Boehner acknowledged that there is a great deal of what he called "scar tissue" from partisan warfare. He said one way to reduce the tension is to give everyone more time.

"Mindful of the lessons of the past ... legislators and the public will have three days to read a bill before it comes to a vote," he said. "Legislation will be properly scrutinized and actually sound. Committees, once bloated, will be smaller with a renewed mission."

But legislation set to come to the floor seems likely to kick off new battles. Democrats are complaining about rules mandating spending cuts and about the GOP's refusal to open up the planned health care overhaul repeal to amendments.

Across the Capitol, the new Senate opened for business under continued Democratic control, although with a smaller margin.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) came back with an eye to changing the rules governing filibusters, which tend to benefit the minority. He wants to limit damage to his party's agenda from increasing threats -- often made anonymously -- to talk bills and nominations to death.

"We may not agree yet on how to fix the problem, but no one can credibly claim problems don't exist," he said. "No one who has watched this body operate since the current majority took office can say that it functions just fine."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is one of the senators battling anonymous obstructions.

"Nothing is more hypocritical than all the sanctimonious stuff I'm hearing down the hall about the new era, no more business as usual ... [and] we're going to have accountability and transparency. But yet we seem to be embroiled down on this end of the hall with not even being able to get beyond a secret hold," she lamented.

For his part, Reid is hoping another parliamentary maneuver will help him get a handle on filibusters. He technically extended the legislative day over the next few weeks, to take advantage of the narrow window when a simple majority is all it takes to change the rules.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned him that Democrats could come to regret losing the secret hold if they lose the majority and "suddenly find themselves completely powerless to prevent Republicans from overturning legislation they themselves have worked so hard to enact."

McConnell's other argument is that the Senate functions as it is supposed to.

"The founders crafted the Senate to be different," he said. "They crafted it to be a deliberate, thoughtful place, and changing the rules in the way that's been proposed would unalterably change the Senate itself."

The Senate has left Washington but will return in a few weeks.

The House is in session Thursday, with the new speaker having ordered a reading of the U.S. Constitution. He also hopes to get in votes to repeal the health care overhaul and the first round of spending cuts before President Obama's State of the Union address at the end of the month. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.