The Republican-controlled 114th Congress was sworn in Tuesday with John Boehner surviving a challenge to his speakership from dissatisfied lawmakers from his own party.
While the first day of the new Congress was a celebratory occasion for Republicans gaining control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in eight years, events in the House of Representatives had an air of suspense as a clerk slowly read the roll call and each lawmaker declared their preference for speaker.
A small but aggressive core of conservative House Republicans voiced their displeasure with Boehner’s leadership, claiming that he’s abandoned conservative principles and capitulated to President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
Three Republicans – Reps. Ted Yoho and Daniel Webster of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas – were pitted against Boehner, who survived a similar uprising in 2013. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California was the Democratic candidate.
Needing at least 205 votes to retain his gavel, Boehner got 216 of the 408 House members who voted. But 24 Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner and one voted “present.” Rather than choose Boehner, some Republicans opted to vote for fellow House members. One lawmaker voted for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., while another cast a ballot for former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“We need a change of leadership,” said Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who voted for Webster. “Our phone has been ringing off the wall. It’s clear what voters wanted in Kansas.”
“We’ve been talking about making a change since July,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who also voted for Webster. “We said to the American people who are so frustrated: We’re listening to you.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a Boehner ally, called the attempt to oust the speaker “amateur hour.”
“I do think you marginalize yourself when you cast these kinds of votes and make yourself less effective fighting for the things you believe in,” he said.
Boehner’s re-election represented the latest victory by establishment Republicans against the tea party conservatives. Mainstream Republican candidates with strong financial and organizational backing from the party establishment routinely beat tea party candidates in state after state this year, and the party went on to gain seats in the House and seize control of the Senate.
Tuesday’s speaker vote had most defections against a sitting speaker since 1923, when Frederick Gillett required nine ballots to win re-election, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of one tea party group, the Tea Party Patriots, called the votes against Boehner a badge of honor.
“Republicans should study the names of those who were brave enough to stand up and cast their vote today against the status quo of the Boehner establishment,” she said in a statement. “One day, they will lead that party, and the party and our nation will be far better for it.”
Following the vote, a relieved and tearful Boehner promised to make the economy the main thrust of the House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 246-188. Still, he vowed to bring up bills the previous House had passed with bipartisan support but died in the then-Democratic-controlled Senate.
While urging both parties to work together, Boehner also made it clear that he intends to push the Republican agenda, which includes a vote authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.
“They say nothing will be accomplished here, that the division is wider, so the gridlock will be greater,” Boehner said. “That’s fair enough. Skepticism of the government is healthy, and in our time, quite understandable. But one problem with saying ‘it can’t be done’ is that it already has been done – or at least started.”
Pelosi, who handed Boehner the speaker’s gavel, laid out her party’s agenda, which includes repairing the Voting Rights Act that was weakened when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions in 2013.
“And my hope is that in the inevitable exchanges and clashes that may happen in the months ahead, we will not lose sight of the truth that is as fresh as today’s ceremony and as historic as our republic: The ideals that unite us are stronger than the issues that divide us in this House.”
Even the White House appeared eager to start the New Year with the new Congress on better terms. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said congressional leaders from both parties have been invited to the White House next Tuesday because Obama “wants to try to find common ground with Republicans.”
But the feel-good moment appeared to fade after the White House announced that Obama would veto a Keystone bill if it comes to his desk.
The battle over Keystone, which both the House and Senate are taking up this week, revealed the same fissures and partisan rhetoric that epitomized the 113th Congress, regarded as one of the worst in history
“After years of manufacturing every possible excuse, today President Obama was finally straight with (Americans) about where he truly stands,” Boehner said later. “His answer is no to more American infrastructure, and no to more jobs.”
While the House’s opening day contained drama, the Senate was more low key. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ascended to Senate majority leader, without the criticism that accompanied Boehner’s election as speaker.
And senators who fought fiercely ahead of November’s election cordially escorted new and re-elected senators into the chamber, where they were sworn into office by Vice President Joe Biden.
McConnell, in brief remarks, said that Republicans “recognize the enormity of the task before us.” Republicans hold a 54-46 majority over Democrats in the chamber.
“We know a lot of hard work awaits,” he said. “We know important opportunities await, too. I’m really optimistic about what we can accomplish. But I’ll have much more to say about that tomorrow.”
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the new Senate minority leader, missed Tuesday’s ceremonies. Reid, who suffered broken ribs and facial bones in a home exercise mishap, was under doctor’s orders not to go to work, his spokesman said.