First Session Of 113th Congress Underway

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WASHINGTON
(AP) — Congress is ushering in the new and the old – dozens of eager
freshmen determined to change Washington and the harsh reality of
another stretch of bitterly divided government.

The
113th Congress will convene Thursday at the constitutionally required
time of noon for pomp, pageantry and politics as newly elected members
of the House and Senate are sworn in and the speaker of the
Republican-controlled House is chosen. The traditions come against the
backdrop of a mean season that closed out an angry election year.

A
deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” of big tax increases and spending cuts
split the parties in New Year's Day votes, and the House's failure to
vote on a Superstorm Sandy aid package before adjournment prompted GOP
recriminations against the leadership.

“There's
a lot of hangover obviously from the last few weeks of this session
into the new one, which always makes a fresh start a lot harder,” Rep.
Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said.

For all the change of the next Congress, the new bosses are the same as the old bosses.

President
Barack Obama secured a second term in the November elections, and
Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge in the new
two-year Congress, ensuring that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will remain
in charge. Republicans maintained their majority in the House but will
have a smaller advantage, 234-199. Former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson
Jr.'s Illinois seat and the one held by South Carolina Republican Tim
Scott, the state's next senator, will be the two vacancies.

Speaker
John Boehner, R-Ohio, has faced a bruising few weeks with his fractious
GOP caucus but seemed poised to win another term as speaker. He
mollified angry Republicans from New York and New Jersey on Wednesday
with the promise of a vote Friday on $9 billion of the storm relief
package and another vote on the remaining $51 billion on Jan. 15.

The GOP members quickly abandoned their chatter about voting against the speaker.

The
new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the
dysfunctional 112th Congress, one of the least productive in more than
60 years. Tea party members within the Republican ranks insist on fiscal
discipline in the face of growing deficits and have 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, D-W.Va., who was
re-elected in November. “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.”

The next two months will be
crucial, with tough economic issues looming. Congress put off for just
eight weeks automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs
that were due to begin with the new year. The question of raising the
nation's borrowing authority also must be decided. Another round of ugly
negotiations between Obama and Congress is not far off.

There
are 12 newly elected senators – eight Democrats, three Republicans and
one independent, former Maine Gov. Angus King, who will caucus with the
Democrats. They will be joined by Scott, the first black Republican in
decades, who was tapped by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the
remaining term of Sen. Jim DeMint. The conservative DeMint resigned to
lead the Heritage Foundation think tank.

In a
sign of some diversity for the venerable body, the Senate will have
three Hispanics – Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Republican
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and one of the new members, Republican Ted
Cruz of Texas. There will be 20 women in the 100-member chamber, the
highest number yet.

At least one longtime
Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, will be departing in a few
weeks, nominated by Obama to be secretary of state. That opens the door
to former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, the only incumbent senator to
lose in November's elections, to possibly make a bid to return to
Washington.

Eighty-two freshmen join the House
– 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. Women will total 81 in the
435-member body – 62 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

In
the Senate, Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell are negotiating
possible changes in the rules as lawmakers face a bitter partisan fight
over filibusters, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide who
spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak
publicly about private matters.

Reid has
complained that Republicans filibuster too often and has threatened to
impose strict limits with a simple majority vote. That step could set
off retaliatory delays and other maneuvers by Republicans, who argue
that they filibuster because Reid often blocks them from offering
amendments.

The aide said Reid was preserving the option of making changes with a simple majority vote.

The
start of the new Congress also offers a comeback for one lawmaker. Sen.
Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who suffered a stroke last January and has been
absent for the past year, plans a dramatic return to the Capitol by
walking up the 45 steps to the Senate's doors.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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