It is the rarest event in modern American democracy -- the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in the House of Representatives.
When Republican John Boehner claims the gavel from Democrat Nancy Pelosi at noon Wednesday to become the 61st speaker of the House, it will mark only the third party shift since 1955 in the congressional body supposedly most responsive to the voters. Everything else in the capital changes (control of the Senate has ping-ponged eight times since 1955, counting three turnovers in 2001 alone), but the House endures as Washington's answer to the Rock of Gibraltar. To dislodge a House majority, it takes a (cliché alert) tsunami like the 2010 elections in which the Republicans gained 63 seats, the biggest pickup by either party since 1948.
The investiture of a new House speaker should not be confused with a presidential inauguration -- a detail that eluded both Newt Gingrich in 1995 and Nancy Pelosi in 2007. When Gingrich became the first Republican speaker since Joe Martin (who lost his perch in 1955, the year that the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series), he gave a let-the-word-go-forth acceptance speech that included describing the plight of the poor as a "moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery."
In honor of Pelosi becoming the highest-ranking woman in American political history (the speaker follows the vice president in presidential succession), Democrats held a four-day celebration that political critics mocked as a "Pelosi-Palooza."
Boehner -- who is neither a Gingrich-style visionary nor a breakthrough figure like Pelosi -- has a far more modest opening-day agenda. After giving his acceptance speech (prediction: tears will be shed and the "American dream" invoked), Boehner will preside over the passage of the first installment of Republican-backed internal House reforms, including requiring formal votes to increase the federal debt ceiling and mandating that legislation be published online 72 hours before passage. But Boehner's major task on Wednesday will be playing a starring role in a photo-op marathon. The new speaker will be swearing in the huge class of 87 Republican freshman -- and then, in a room off the House floor, reprising the ceremony individually for their families, their friends and their home-state reporters.
Most of what Speaker Boehner (two words that Democrats had better get used to) and his GOP majority plan to do during the opening weeks of the new Congress will be as symbolic as the individual oath-taking ceremonies. House Republicans put out a press release announcing that they will offer a resolution Thursday to cut the House operating budget by 5 percent ($35 million). This is straight out of the Gingrich playbook, even though Republicans in 1995 put through far more draconian staffing cuts. Thursday the Republican majority will also have the entire Constitution read aloud
, although, at the moment, this material will not be on the midterm exams.
All this will be prelude to the big elections-have-consequences moment next week when the House majority (with presumably all 242 Republicans and a few skittish Democrats joining in) votes to rescind Nancy Pelosi's proudest achievement -- the Obama health care legislation. The two reasons why this will be merely a gesture for the cameras rather than a serious legislative gambit can be found in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution (the Senate) and Article 1, Section 7 (the presidential veto). With the Democrats still in control of the Senate by a 53-to-47 margin and with House Republicans still 48 votes short of being able to override a presidential veto, it is a certainty that health care reform will remain the law of the land through the 2012 election.
The unalterable truth is that -- without the active cooperation of the president -- it is virtually impossible for a House speaker to undo the past and extremely difficult for him or her to dictate the future. Gingrich initially lost his showdown with Bill Clinton over federal spending, but achieved lasting influence when he worked with the president on welfare reform and a balanced budget. Despite the grandiose hopes of her liberal supporters, the elevation of Pelosi as speaker did not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- or transform any major policies of the Bush administration.
The legislative issue most likely to produce Cuban-Missile-Crisis-level brinkmanship between the ascendant House Republicans and the Obama White House is the need to raise the federal statutory debt limit beyond its current $14.3 trillion. With federal borrowing currently at $13.9 trillion, the government is on red-ink pace to run out of money sometime this spring. There is no major figure in either party who wants the United States to become an international deadbeat, statutorily unable to pay its bills or to borrow to cover them.
The problem is that no one in the House -- especially those who represent competitive districts -- wants to be on record as casting an unpopular vote to increase the debt ceiling. Instead, both Republicans and Democrats will resort to the easy rhetorical gambit of linking the debt vote to a long-term deficit reduction plan. But there is no visible politically plausible road to a bipartisan agreement, especially since House members in both parties were naysayers on the recent Deficit Commission plan
. With Republicans militantly opposed to tax increases and Democrats fervently against draconian spending cuts, the pressures on Boehner and Obama will be intense as the debt clock moves ever closer to $14.3 trillion -- the political version of high noon.
For all the celebration Wednesday among the 83 freshman Republicans (and the wan festivities featuring the nine new House Democrats washed up in the GOP wave), the nation is still sorting out the lasting meaning of November's electoral landslide. If Obama is reelected in 2012 (and the president's polling numbers have registered a small uptick
), then Boehner and Company (assuming they hold their majority next time) will be playing a weak hand in the game of Divided Government. But if Obama proves to be a one-term historical accident, then the moment Wednesday that John Boehner -- the 61-year-old son of a bartender from Reading, Ohio -- first clasps the speaker's gavel will be remembered as the start of the Republican resurrection.
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