The 113th Congress is officially off and running. Speaker of the House John Boehner (who I personally respect), was easily reelected. All new members of the Senate (including its first openly gay Senator as well as the first African-American from the South since Reconstruction) were sworn in as well as new House members. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who has been recovering from a massive stroke since early last year walked up the Capitol Steps with friends in tow. But for all the good feelings this engenders and the new, eager faces ready to engage in politics it cannot hide the fact that Congress is ideologically and personally divided.
John Boehner will preside over a split Republican Caucus composed of Tea Party conservatives, conservatives, moderates and establishment Republicans. On the other side of the aisle Nancy Pelosi has promised to continue to rule her caucus with an iron fist. This is likely to hold as fewer and fewer Democrats are fiscally or socially conservative but more liberal than the average voter.
Boehner’s road as Speaker has been marked with failures and successes. In 2010 when he ascended to the Speakership conservatives and even a few liberals were optimistic about his tenure. Since that high-water mark however that optimism has faded. Repeated battles over the debt, deficit, debt ceiling and ideology have wounded the Speaker. Most recently many conservative Republicans felt sold out by the Speaker on the Fiscal Cliff. If that was not bad enough the Speaker was battered with allegations of incompetence over his handling of the Hurricane Sandy relief bill.
Despite all this Boehner was easily reelected to the a second term presiding over the House. But his Caucus is as unruly as ever and only slightly smaller than 2010’s class. Republicans are bitter and angry over the Fiscal Cliff deal and Boehner will have to find a way to handle the looming debt ceiling fight in such a way it does not fracture the GOP Caucus and actually achieve some deep and lasting spending cuts.
In the Senate Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid showed that cooperation in the upper chamber is unlikely to come easily. Harry Reid’s refusal to even negotiate with Mitch McConnell over the Fiscal Cliff sent him to Joe Biden. Earlier in the lame duck session Harry Reid and Democrats threatened to use the nuclear option and end filibusters of any kind if Republicans did not stop blocking Obama’s policies (essentially that was the threat). Since then Reid has backed down and is working on small reforms with Mitch McConnell.
But that agreement does not signal all is well in the Senate. The impending Debt Ceiling debate is sure to divide the Senate and not necessarily along the same lines in the House. There, ideology and partisanship will matter. But in the Senate however personal relationships opinions may reign supreme. Long-time Senators on both sides may be loath to reform entitlements (many are) and may be limited in their approach to cutting spending as they represent diverse electorates.
Fresh off the Fiscal Cliff deal the President has vowed not to negotiate with Republicans over the Debt Ceiling. He will likely have to regardless. Republicans in both chambers are not going to take tax increases along with minimal cuts as an acceptable deal to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans may feel this is their last chance to meaningfully cut spending under this President before campaign considerations kick in for 2014.
This is what faces the 113th Congress as it hits the ground running. The 112th Congress is viewed as the least popular Congress in US History. After the 113th Congress is gone will the public say the same of this Congress?