WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and fellow Republicans received a reception Tuesday that rivaled the frigid winter weather, as hundreds of attendees greeted GOP lawmakers with boos, chants, hisses and -- in some cases -- stony silence.
The chilly display toward McConnell, who was flanked by other high-ranking Republicans as he took the stage at President Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony, was a momentary break in the otherwise jubilant spirit of the day.
The reception spoke volumes about the awkward position members of Kentucky's predominantly Republican congressional delegation find themselves in as Obama enters the honeymoon phase of his presidency. With the economy and the nation's housing market in a free fall, unemployment at the highest level in more than a decade and a battle brewing over an Obama-backed stimulus package that policy experts say could reach $1 trillion, Republicans feel they have been made the scapegoat for many of the nation's woes.
"There's definitely a feeling out there. Anytime a party has been in power and had as many problems as the country has, when you have difficulties like that it's natural to pin the blame on that party," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, "I'm sure the truth is more complicated than that, but they have been in power for eight years."
Still, most Republican lawmakers eagerly embraced the symbolism of Obama's place in history as the first African American to hold the nation's highest office and have pledged to work in a bipartisan manner to resolve the country's financial woes. On Tuesday, as he did following the November elections, McConnell issued a statement congratulating Obama on his win.
"Inauguration Day is a day for all Americans to celebrate. For more than two centuries, the peaceful transfer of power between U.S. presidents has served as an inspiration to millions here and around the world," McConnell said. "And on this Inauguration Day, we witness another inspiring event as America's first African American president takes the oath of office from the Capitol steps. I congratulate President Obama and his family on this historic day."
House Republicans also acknowledged the momentous occasion.
"Today is a day of celebration -- a celebration of our thriving democracy and a celebration of our nation's first African-American president," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. "I wish President Obama and his family all my best and look forward to traveling the next four years with him in our continuing American journey."
Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, who was recently named the top Republican on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee for a fourth term, underscored the importance of the day while acknowledging the challenges ahead.
"I congratulate President Barack Obama on this historic day and wish him well as he takes on this immense responsibility," he said in a statement. "I look forward to working with him as we face the challenges that lie ahead and hope that he will join me in fighting for Kentucky's Fifth District."
Republicans will have to work to help reassure the public that they are willing and capable of working in a bipartisan manner, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The nation is at a critical crossroad and the electorate is tired of the type of political rhetoric that punctuated previous sessions of Congress.
"Obama is going to have overwhelming support coming in," Sabato said. "He's probably going to have a decent honeymoon. It's going to be tougher for McConnell to hold his forces together and stop this very popular new president and (the Democratic) majority from getting everything they want."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008