The (not-so) calm before the storm on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON — The boys — and girls — of Capitol Hill are back in town.
Lawmakers new and old picked up their keys to their new offices and got sworn in for the 114th Congress on Tuesday.
Unlike any other day of the year, all was not pomp and circumstance, but rather chaos and confusion. Animals (at least, a pet or two) roamed the halls; desks and debris lined the Capitol basement walls; Republicans congratulated Democrats and vice-versa.
Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cuz, two potential GOP presidential primary opponents, hugged it out in the hallways.
It marked a rare moment of camaraderie between parties and potential political foes as they prepare for what looks to be as contentious a new Congress as ever.
On the House side, an attempt orchestrated by conservatives to unseat John Boehner from his position as Speaker came closer to success than many expected, with more than two dozen Republicans voting against him — a show of discontent not seen, according to the Washington Post, since 1860.
And expressed openness from President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to work together seemed already forgotten as the White House promised to veto a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans had promised would be the very first part of their agenda after they took full control.
Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a member of the new Democratic minority in the Senate and a former member of the House, said he was committed to getting something done on Capitol Hill even with Republicans at the helm — but sounded less than confident it was possible.
“Whether in the majority or the minority, you have to work with the other party,” he said, noting during his decades on the Hill passing hundreds of bills he had always worked with Republicans.
But asked whether he felt Republicans were sincere in their stated openness to working with Democrats, Markey admitted: “My hope is that there is a pent-up desire to legislate.”
There was, however, some bipartisan love seen in the halls of Congress on Tuesday, perhaps brought on — or allowed to slip out — by the chaos of the day.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas received a congratulatory handshake from Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in the hallway off the old Senate chamber, before turning to say “hi” to newly-minted GOP Sen. Steve Daines of Montana. Daines had lost his family in the crush of people waiting for their picture and the potential for a kiss on the cheek from Vice President Joe Biden.
“Well, we’ve got four kids, my wife, my mom and dad!” Daines shrugged when asked how he managed to lose his family on day one.
Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was joined by his look-a-like older brother, planned like many of his colleagues to bring a young family member onto the floor — his younger nephew — while he was sworn in.
Former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin was meting out kisses of his own, planting one right on Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s cheek after scooping her and his successor, new Sen. Gary Peters, into a group hug during Peters’ introductory party.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — who braved a storm in Des Moines to make it in and marveled that he was only 45 minutes late — party-hopped.
“Just get to as many receptions as you can,” he said, “and if you’re a new member having a reception, stay around and greet and thank as many people that helped you get here.”
He said he had already stopped by receptions for newly-minted GOP colleagues Sens. Dan Sullivan, Mike Rounds and Thom Tillis, and had about a dozen receptions he planned to hit — but he’d spend “most of my time” with his new colleague from Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst.
Ernst was one of a handful of rising stars on the campaign trail who were finally anointed as full members of their parties on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Mia Love, an African-American Mormon representative from Utah, got a special visit from Rep. Paul Ryan — who thanked her friends and family for bringing “this budding star” to Congress — before heading to the House floor for the first business of the new Congress.
Looking somewhat shell-shocked at being accosted by a reporter in the hallways, Love summed up the first day for many congressional newbies: “I’m excited,” she said. “Don’t know what to expect.”
“I’m just going” with it, she added.
But there ran, underneath the fun and excitement, an undercurrent of tension that was difficult to ignore.
Conservatives who voted against Boehner were grumbling before days end about punishments they were already being given or warned about by the speaker and others.
Some Democrats, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who remains a perennial thorn in the President’s side, criticized his opposition to the Keystone bill, while still others sought to support him and the green elements in their base. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin delayed a planned committee hearing on the legislation by objecting to it on the floor of the Senate.
Indeed, it seemed despite Tuesday’s fun, the dirty work of legislating wasn’t far from lawmakers’ minds.
“It’s more or less ceremony today,” Grassley said. “The hard work begins tomorrow.”