WASHINGTON - The first order of business for a new Congress on Friday was a scheduled vote on national flood insurance legislation to help victims of Superstorm Sandy, a contentious issue for House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner, whose colleagues a day earlier only narrowly re-elected him to the job.
The 113th Congress welcomed dozens of new members Thursday to long-festering national problems, deficits and immigration among them, in an intensely partisan and crisis-driven era of divided government.
Boehner barely retained his powerful position as the new Congress opened for business, despite a mini-revolt in his own party over the "fiscal cliff" deal and the bruising fight over the legislation for victims of Superstorm Sandy, which battered New York and New Jersey communities in October.
Boehner kept his job in a government where President Barack Obama will soon be sworn in to a second term and his fellow Democrats control the Senate. Fourteen Republicans declined to vote for Boehner, a reflection of their unhappiness with his leadership, but several more defections would have been needed to deny him a first-ballot victory.
Boehner promised the vote would take place Friday, changing course after he was blasted by members of his own party Wednesday for putting it off. If it passes as expected, the bill will create slightly more than $9 billion in additional deficits.
A follow-up disaster aid measure, which Boehner has said will be brought to a vote on Jan. 15, would add $27 billion — more if the bill grows, as seems likely, after it is reconciled with a $60-billion Senate version.
The backlash over Boehner's handling of the Sandy legislation came on the heels of a near-rebellion by tax-opposing conservatives over a deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff," a self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline for widespread tax increases and deep spending cuts to take hold. The deal finally passed late Tuesday to raise taxes on the richest Americans while protecting the middle class and the poor.
Obama signed the bill early Thursday.
Boehner must now shepherd Congress through new battles over raising the country's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit and $109 billion in spending cuts for the military and domestic programs, which this week's fiscal cliff deal delayed by just two months.
Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans to tackle the nation's heavy burden of debt at long last. "We have to be willing — truly willing — to make this right," he said.
"The American dream is in peril so long as its namesake is weighed down by this anchor of debt," Boehner said.
Only Congress has the power to raise the debt limit.
Republicans have said they intend to seek significant savings from government health care and other benefit programs to gain control over spending. Obama has said he won't bargain over the government's borrowing authority. He has also said he is open to changes in benefit programs, but would face resistance on that from liberal Democrats.
Republicans kept their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 235-199. Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge, ensuring that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will remain in charge.
Reid had a bad week himself, after his frustrated Republican counterpart in the Senate instead reached out to Vice-President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran, to put together the eventual fiscal cliff deal.
Reid said he, too, is ready for attempts to rein in federal spending, but laid down a few conditions.
"Any future budget agreements must balance the need for thoughtful spending reductions with revenue from the wealthiest among us and closing wasteful tax loopholes," he said. That was in keeping with Obama's remarks after Congress had agreed on fiscal cliff legislation to raise taxes for the wealthy while keeping them level for the middle class.
Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have other ideas, both having said in recent days that the days of raising taxes are over.
"Now is the time to get serious about spending," McConnell said. "And if the past few weeks have taught us anything, that means the president needs to show up early this time."
While neither Boehner nor Reid mentioned immigration in their opening-day speeches, Obama is expected to highlight the issue in the first State of the Union address of his new term. Lawmakers are already working toward a compromise they hope can clear both houses.
Most Democrats have long favoured legislation to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, and Republicans have stoutly resisted. Now, though, many Republicans appear ready to reconsider, after watching with alarm as Obama ran up an estimated 71 per cent of the Hispanic vote in winning re-election over Mitt Romney in November.