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Coup averted

A new Congress convenes, as Republicans remove the roadblocks and reelect John Boehner as speaker of the House

House Speaker John Boehner Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

Coup averted

WASHINGTON—Withstanding protests from within his own party, John Boehner was reelected speaker of the House on Thursday as the 113th Congress convened.

Speaker Boehner began his new term by warning lawmakers that the American Dream is in peril. “Our government has built up too much debt,” he said. “ Our economy is not producing enough jobs. These are not separate problems.”

Boehner, who needed 214 votes to gain a majority of the 426 House members who voted, received support from 220 House lawmakers, all Republicans. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tallied 192 votes, while 14 lawmakers voted for other House members.

There was chatter on Capitol Hill this week that Boehner’s reelection would face a significant roadblock by some Republicans upset at his role in the fiscal cliff deal. But a viable coup never materialized.

A handful of Republicans abstained and just nine GOP lawmakers voted for someone other than Boehner. Two current members of the House voted for Tea Party favorite and former GOP Rep. Allen West, who lost his reelection bid for his House seat from Florida in November. Another lawmaker voted for a former head of the Government Accountability Office (under the rules, a candidate doesn’t have to be a member of the House to serve as its speaker).

But these amounted to little more than protest votes. While Boehner won all available GOP votes for his successful speakership run two years ago, protest votes are not uncommon. Twenty Democrats did not support Rep. Pelosi for speaker in 2011. An election for House speaker hasn’t gone to a second ballot since 1923.

On the other side of the Capitol, Vice President Joe Biden swore in 13 new members of the Senate. Among those was former Rep. Tim Scott. The Republican from South Carolina, who is replacing Jim DeMint, becomes the only black member of the Senate. Despite the addition of Scott, Democrats increased their majority in the Senate by two to 55.

A rare uplifting moment on Capitol Hill occurred on the new Senate’s first day: Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., returned a year after suffering a stroke. With the help of some of his colleagues, Kirk slowly made his way up the Capitol steps as other lawmakers cheered him on.

But most of the day’s drama focused on the simmering feud between Boehner and fiscal conservatives and whether it would cause a series threat to the Ohio Republican’s reelection to the speakership.

While the revolt was muted at best, the feud threatens to remain on a steady burn during 2013.

It began when the House GOP leadership team late last year booted four of its own from seats on key committees for this new Congress.

The ousted members, removed from the House Financial Services Committee and the House Budget Committee, did not retreat in the aftermath of what they called “their punishments.”

“If Speaker Boehner wants to come back to my district, he’s not going to be met with very much welcome,” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said in December. Ousted from his post on the budget committee, Rep. Amash voted for Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, to be the new speaker.

Singled out for not going along with all the Republican establishment’s initiatives, the block of fiscally conservative House lawmakers will continue to push for federal spending cuts deeper than those being sought by their party leaders. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who was removed from the budget committee, cast his speakership vote Thursday for Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

“There’s a lot of folks up here that it’s not necessarily about principles,” Rep. Huelskamp said last month. “It is about politics. It is about personalities, and it’s oftentimes about partisanship.”

While these rare outbursts were not enough to dethrone Boehner, they do reveal tensions within the Republican Party that Boehner would be unwise to ignore.

“I spent a lot of time saying … ‘Speaker Boehner is doing the best job he can do,’” Amash said last month. “I did that for a year … a year and a half. We are not doing the best job we can do. It is not acceptable to anyone. We can do a lot better. But we need people who can be bold. We need leaders on both sides. And we don’t have that right now.”

In accepting his second term as House speaker, Boehner on Thursday, in a subtle nod to his party’s squabbles, said, “Public service was never meant to be an easy living.”

With fights over raising the government’s debt ceiling and approving a spending measure to keep the government open expected to occur in February and March, the new 113th Congress will be anything but easy.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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