John Boehner stood before the packed House chamber; its members and their families were giving him a standing ovation. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from his eyes – he always hated about himself that he’s prone to crying at important moments – and waved his audience to their seats. “I’m still just me,” he laughed. And so began the 112th Congress under Speaker Boehner.
Boehner takes the helm of the House at a time of great political volatility. Just four years ago, Democrats swept into power in the House making Nancy Pelosi the first woman Speaker. The chamber has had a 20+ seat swing in all three of the last elections. In order to maintain his majority, Boehner’s must balance the demands of a new generation of Tea Party freshmen – and the movement they represent — while trying to work hand-in-hand with the Democratically-controlled Senate and White House to pass legislation.
“We gather here today at a time of great challenges,” Boehner said. “Nearly one of 10 of our neighbors is out of work. Health care costs are still rising for American families. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt soon will eclipse the entire size of our national economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions.”
Boehner’s first moves show the delicate balance he’s trying to strike: he’s worked to give the Democratic minority more of a voice and to decentralize much of the power that has been concentrated into the Speaker’s office over the last 20 years; at the same time the House’s first act will be to repeal health care reform next week, a strong rejection of Obama’s signature achievement.
Boehner’s speech was, typically, brief – just 12 minutes, one minute shorter than Pelosi’s preceding handover. He managed to make it through without crying, though his wife Debbie, in the Speaker’s box in the gallery up and to the right of the floor, openly mopped her eyes as he took the oath of office. “I did look better when I showed up at the beginning,” she laughed ruefully on her way out. “It’s just been emotional the whole time. He was a janitor in khakis when I met him, you know? One of twelve, Catholic, you know? It was never expected, of course not. But we’re very proud of him – whole family is and all of our friends.”
Ten of Boehner’s 11 siblings – he noted his brother Gary could not break away from the restaurant he runs in Georgia – surrounded Debbie in the box. Many of them clutched tissues, crying through his speech. Behind them sat Pelosi’s family and friends, including her brother former Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro.
Boehner received the united support of his conference – 242 votes minus his; it’s traditional for the Speaker-designate to refrain from voting. Tonight, he’ll hold a formal reception at the Library of Congress for supporters, family and friends. Last night a more intimate group causally feted the Speaker-to-be over chili, beer and wine at the Capitol Hill Club. Given the economic times – and Boehner’s aversion to the spotlight – the opening ceremonies have been studiously understated. “I like everything about the way he’s handled this transition,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was present on the House floor for the event. “It’s exactly what voters were looking for – no pomp, no frills – just getting down to work on the things Americans want us to do.”
At the foot of the rostrum stood close Boehner friends Senators Richard Burr and Saxby Chambliss and Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican. Former Vice President Dan Quayle sat next to his son, Benjamin Quayle, a freshman Republican representing Arizona, in the front row. Former Rep. Joe Scarborough glad-handed his way across the floor while his MSNBC Morning Joe co-host, Mika Brzezinski, stayed up in the press galleries. Many members brought children: Democrat Jason Altmire’s two daughters flanked him as he took the oath of office; Republican Michele Bachmann’s teenage daughter sat on her lap in the front row during the speeches; and three of Pelosi’s 10 grandkids meet her as she came off the rostrum.
The ceremony was, on the whole, civil and boisterous. Both Boehner and Pelosi received standing ovations and Pelosi passed Boehner a mock giant gavel, which produced chuckles from more than a few members. It was a degree of decorum not often seen in the last “You lie!” Congress. If only it would last.