WASHINGTON-Before lawmakers and their squirming children wedged together into the House chamber's leather seats, John Boehner took the oath as the new speaker of the House of Representatives to boisterous cheers.
"It's still just me," he told the chamber after taking the gavel.
In his remarks, Boehner recalled the Catholic tradition of Ash Wednesday, saying, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is." Then he repeated verbatim what he said in 2007 on the first day that Democrats took power in Congress: "What they want is a government that is honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs."
Boehner vowed to have a more open Congress that works on smaller pieces of legislation instead of catchall bills, with input from the minority. When Boehner first walked into the chamber, alone and unannounced, he greeted Democratic members first before Republicans noticed he was there.
The opening of a new Congress is the only time of the year children, cousins, spouses, brothers, and sisters fill the halls of the Capitol with noise and camera flashes. Freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., sat in the House chamber with his six children piled on his lap and leaning over his shoulder. Ten of Speaker Boehner's 11 siblings piled into the room, along with his wife and two daughters, as well as an entourage of friends from his home state of Ohio. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell sat with House members. Members carried personal Bibles around for their individual swearing-in ceremonies.
Some new members wandered, lost in the twisting halls and tunnels under the Capitol, trying to find a place to buy a cup of coffee. Children begged their parents to take them on the underground train for members-only again. The 112th Congress has a large number of new members who have never held political office before: farmers, a funeral home owner, doctors, and several owners of car dealerships.
The new Republican majority appeared fresh-faced and cheerful, voting unanimously for Boehner to be their next leader. But diminished Democrats, while they elected Nancy Pelosi to be minority leader, weren't as unified. Eleven Democrats voted for Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., a Blue Dog, to be the party's leader, and seven voted for other members, including two dissenters from Pelosi's own state of California, Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa. That is a rare showing of opposition-in past years, the dissenting votes for the party leaders has never topped double-digits.
Pelosi, in handing the gavel over to Boehner, said that Republicans will "find us a willing partner" if they focus on jobs and reducing the deficit.
The Republicans will begin their session Thursday with a reading of the Constitution, and then they will proceed to vote on $35 million in cuts to the House budget, slicing committee and member budgets. Symbolically, the new Appropriations Committee chair, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., requested a 9 percent cut in his own budget, almost double the 5 percent cuts other committees will experience. Republicans plan to vote on a repeal of healthcare reform a week from Wednesday.
Democrats still control the Senate 53-47, and President Obama holds a veto pen at the White House, so House Republicans will be limited in what they can do.