Boehner pleads for civility, but it doesn't last long

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Even as the House of Representatives' newly elected leaders made lofty calls for civility and bipartisanship on Wednesday, the rank and file members engaged in sharp political warfare over the federal budget and health care.

The new Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio tried to set a new tone, as he declared in his acceptance speech, "the American people have humbled us."

With 10 of his 11 siblings looking on, Boehner, 61, became the 53rd Speaker of the House, succeeding Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California. He'll lead a House with a 242 to 193 GOP majority, the biggest Republican edge in 62 years.

Wednesday's speaker election and ceremonies were somber affairs, unlike the hoopla that surrounded Pelosi four years ago when she became the first woman chosen for the House's most powerful job.

She bowed out Wednesday saying that she was "grateful to my colleagues for their commitment to equality — which is both our heritage and our hope — giving me the historic honor of serving as the first woman Speaker of the House. And now more doors are wide open for all of America's daughters and granddaughters."

She also echoed Boehner's call for more cooperation, pledging that when Republicans "come forward with solutions that address these American challenges, you will find in us a willing partner."

Boehner stood behind her at the rostrum, and at 2:05 p.m., she turned to him. "God Bless You, Speaker Boehner," Pelosi said, as she handed him the gavel.

The new speaker, who'd just wiped tears from his eyes, promised a more civil, more collegial House.

"We will not always get it right," Boehner said in his acceptance speech. "And we will not always agree on what is right. There's a great deal of scar tissue that has built up on both sides of the aisle. We cannot ignore that, nor should we. My belief has always been, we can disagree without being disagreeable."

However, the era of good feeling was fleeting.

When the House officially convened at noon, most Republican seats were filled, but only about one-fourth of the Democratic seats were. During the roll call to elect the speaker, normally a formality when lawmakers vote strictly along party lines, Pelosi got only 173 votes from the 193-member Democratic caucus.

Some moderates had run on a promise not to back Pelosi, whom they regard as too liberal. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who sought more of a voice for party centrists, got 11 votes. Two moderate California Democrats, Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, voted for each other.

In the halls and on the internet, the tension ran along partisan lines. The Democrats' prime target Wednesday was the Republicans' first major order of business, new rules to require new mandatory spending to be offset by other spending cuts — but not by tax increases.

The changes are designed to be the opening shot in the GOP's assault on the federal deficit, expected to be well above $1 trillion this fiscal year.

But analysts and Democrats are raising serious questions about the Republican effort.

"The rules package makes perfectly clear the priorities of the new Republican majority," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission that issued its report last month. That agenda, she said, involves "enacting unlimited, permanent tax cuts for the wealthy and special interests while gutting programs that benefit most Americans including education, infrastructure improvements, clean energy, medical research and job training."

Critics say the GOP has come up with no specific ways to meet its goal of cutting $100 billion this fiscal year, a goal many Republicans concede privately is probably unattainable, and would do little to dent the deficit. The first vote on spending cuts, due Thursday, would slice $35 million from the House's own budget.

In addition, if Republicans ultimately succeed in repealing the sweeping health care law passed last year — which no one expects, given the Democrats' control of the Senate and President Barack Obama's veto pen — that would add to the deficit, since the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure would save $143 billion during the coming decade.

Even if unpopular spending cuts make it through the House, they would still have to be approved by the Senate, where Democrats control 53 of the 100 seats.

"If these items are too extreme, the Senate's not even going to take them up," said veteran budget analyst Stan Collender.

Adding to the sharply partisan mood was the specter of health care repeal, the newly empowered Republicans' first big goal. The House is expected to vote Friday on the rules governing that debate, with a final vote on repeal due Jan. 12. Virtually all the 85 House GOP freshmen campaigned on a pledge to scrap "Obamacare."

"I've been committed to repealing and replacing the health care bill. The status quo for health care, whether it was under the Democrats or Republicans, wasn't acceptable in my mind," said freshman Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

That idea angers many Democrats, who have embarked on a campaign aimed at painting Republicans are heartless. And, they note, for all the GOP talk of transparency, the repeal bill is scheduled to come up without any new committee hearings on what impacts that would have.

"We cannot return to being the kind of society that blithely accepts the size of a person's wallet determining the kind of health care someone receives," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

If there is to be bipartisan cooperation in the new Congress, it probably will be most apparent in the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to overcome extended debate. That means either party must win some support from the other side of the aisle to prevail on contentious issues.

The mood there Wednesday was somewhat more collegial.

"I don't expect anything to change overnight, but I do think the Senate has a greater opportunity for working together on the issues," said Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who was sworn in Wednesday after serving seven terms in the House. "Over time, the House of Representatives has divided up into teams, with so much of the effort to scoring points on the other team."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who came back from a primary loss to win re-election in a historic write-in campaign that resolved itself only last week, was escorted to her swearing-in by her father, former Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski, who first appointed her to the seat in 2002.

Arm-in-arm, they walked together to the front of a chamber to applause; he gave her a kiss on the cheek as soon as she took the oath of office.

(Lesley Clark, Rob Hotakainen, Erika Bolstad and David Goldstein contributed to this article.)

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