The 113th Congress will be sworn in today. Will this new congress follow in the steps of its predecessor and continue along the intransigent path dictated by its far right Tea Party members? Or will it choose a more moderate path that will allow it to find compromise and actually govern?
The first task will be to elect a new speaker. Rumors abound that John Boehner is in danger of losing his speakership; the most prominent being a serious plan among 20 House Republicans to block Boehner’s re-election. It is no secret that Boehner is perceived as a weak leader incapable of corralling the far right wing of his party. He has dared to remove troublesome members from their committee appointments. He has come under intense criticism for his failed “Plan B” option to the fiscal cliff negotiations and his decision to allow a vote on the Senate bill was roundly panned by his caucus. Add to that the outrage he incurred by failing to bring up the Hurricane Sandy aid bill on Tuesday and you have a speaker facing a groundswell of opposition from within his caucus. But speakers hold immense power. They make committee appointments and control the administrative purse strings of the House. Most importantly they decide which bill reaches the floor for a vote. So if you have piece of legislation that you want passed you need the speaker in your corner. The point being…if you are going to try to unseat Boehner you had better be successful. If you fail, the repercussions will be difficult at best.
The next order of business will be to pass relief aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Boehner had promised representatives from the affected states that this vote would be taken after the fiscal cliff vote last Tuesday. But Boehner decided that his members would look like hypocrites arguing for spending cuts and then authorizing $60 billion in unfunded relief aid for New York and New Jersey. So he pulled the bill off the floor without giving anyone the courtesy of an explanation. Boehner was pilloried by lawmakers from both parties for his decision. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose repeated phone calls Boehner were ignored, accused the speaker of using Sandy’s victims as political pawns. The 112th Congress had no problem throwing the poor, the homeless or the disable under the bus for political gain. Will the 113th congress bring us more of the same?
The next step for the 113 congress will be to approve an increase in the debt ceiling so that the country can pay for goods and services it has already received. The 112th congress refused to raise the limit which resulted in the first downgrade of the nation’s credit rating in history. The president has said that he will not allow congress to hold the debt ceiling limit hostage as they did before. He has said repeatedly that he will not negotiate whether or not the country will pay its bills. It should be noted that the president has a 58% approval rating. The 112th congress left office with an 8% approval rating. That is a lower approval rating than Manual Noriega, Nixon during Watergate, implementing Sharia law or the prospect of Communist Party taking over our politics. As one pundit said: “If the new congress wants to defy this president and lash itself to the mast of debt ceiling debate; then they will go down with that sinking ship.”
In the months that follow the 113th congress will undertake a series of debates about spending. An integral part of those negotiations will be entitlement reform and the defense budget. The 112th congress was famous for funding new weapon systems that the pentagon didn’t want. And while they talked tough about reforming entitlement programs they walked away from two “Grand Bargains” that would have done just that. The truth is the 112th congress was afraid to tackle spending cuts because they are so popular with the electorate. There is no better way to get yourself sent home than to vote to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. The question is will the 113th congress work with the president to cut spending and lower the debt and deficit in a responsible way? Or will it continue to produce the gridlock that awarded its predecessor with an 8% approval rating?
And then there will be the dreaded debate on gun reform. Today, the survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting return to school. We are not only reminded of the horror of that day but we remember the spineless silence on the part of Republican leadership as they awaited their marching orders from the NRA. Are Republicans in congress so wedded to their ideology that even the massacre of 6 and 7 year olds won’t allow them to compromise on sensible gun control regulations? Moderate gun owners from all over the country have called for background checks on all gun purchases and the elimination of assault weapons and extended clip magazines. Will this new congress heed the call of sensible gun ownership and regulation or will they continue to listen to conspiracy theories of a government takeover and the ranting of the NRA?
The 113th congress has an opportunity to rebuild the brand of the Republican Party. They can return to the party of compromise and governing or they can listen to the voices of their predecessors and bring the party and the country to its knees.
We’ll be watching.