All eyes on 113th Congress

The first day of this year robbed us of that clean-slate feeling Jan. 1 traditionally bestows. The grim showdown in Congress over the "fiscal cliff" not only reeked of the old year, it brought the promise that our government is poised to plunge to new depths of dysfunction that heretofore might have been beyond imagination.

On the first day of the 113th Congress, the traditional excitement that new lawmakers enjoy with proud husbands and wives, excited children in tow, was still palpable in the upper chamber. Vice President Biden was never a more ebullient master of ceremonies, swearing in a historic class of senators. And miracle of Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk's (R) recovery from a stroke a year ago and his valiant trip up the Capitol steps for the first time after learning to walk again moved members of both parties.

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But there was a dreariness to the People's House, even if it was, fortunately, lost upon elated newcomers. Democrats were tickled to welcome eight new members, but Republicans would have rather called in sick. After a divisive vote to extend Bush tax cuts to those making less than $450,000 a year and averting the fiscal cliff, angry Republicans split into two camps: those who abandoned Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and the 84 GOP members who took a hit to pass the bill and then those who voted no, including the top two Boehner lieutenants, a majority of whom secretly wanted it to pass. There wasn’t a victor in sight.

Boehner, bruised from what it took to keep the government from going over the cliff, knew through his fatigue and frustration Tuesday night the calamitous politics of the cliff would cost him support when members reelected him Speaker on Thursday. But then he went and kicked himself when he was down, putting off consideration of legislation to provide disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. It was a man-made disaster for the embattled Speaker — the vocal reaction from his own ranks, even of loyalists, was unprecedented. Still, none of it came close to the gubernatorial tongue-lashing he earned from Chris Christie. Standing before the microphones, the New Jersey governor bludgeoned Boehner in footage that will appear in not only future Democratic attack ads but likely Christie's fundraising videos as well.

Ultimately the leader of the House GOP, no longer able to lead because he has lost so many followers, hung on in a Thursday vote to be reelected Speaker. But it remains a thankless job, likely to grow even more difficult, and one it is hard to imagine Boehner holding two years from today.

As he attempts to heal the deep rifts in his conference, Boehner has promised to go to battle for spending reductions in the coming debt-ceiling fight. He pledged to members he will no longer engage in one-on-one negotiations with President Obama. Meanwhile, savoring his temporary victory, Obama declared Tuesday he won’t be negotiating with congressional Republicans either when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling. Despite the fact that the fiscal-cliff deal spent more than $3 trillion and contained no spending cuts, Obama noted the debt ceiling has historically been increased by each Congress without incident and that it should not be held hostage again. Though rising waters of debt threaten an economic flood in the future, Obama wants to go back to the past, when the world didn’t have to watch our government to raise the debt ceiling. At $16 trillion in debt, however, those days are over.

Boehner knows the times have changed, and that his own time as Speaker might be limited. But after being elected Speaker on Thursday, he sounded ready for yet another fight. He urged the newly sworn-in members of the 113th Congress to do the work “demanded not by our constituents but by the times.” He reminded them they are in Congress to do the right thing. "There is a time to every purpose under heaven,” an emotional Boehner said. “For the 113th Congress it is time to rise."

All rise. Please.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.