WASHINGTON — It was a good day to be the new guy.
Freshly elected lawmakers, mostly Republican, arrived early and eager Jan. 6 amid a light snow, showing off the majestic Capitol to their children and posing for cellphone photos. In contrast, returning House Speaker John Boehner had to fend off a revolt within his ranks, and veteran Senate Democrats endured the formal draining away of their party’s power.
Outgoing Senate leader Harry Reid was having such a bad day that he didn’t show up at all.
Instead, Reid tweeted a video of himself, noting he was “working from home on doctor’s orders.” Reid broke three ribs plus bones in his face in a fall on New Year’s Day — an accident that could be metaphor for the battering his party took in November’s election. In the video, a bandage slashed across Reid’s face and covered his right eye.
“He’s pretty banged up,” confirmed Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who met with Reid Tuesday. Durbin said Reid had been injured when an exercise band snapped as he was stretching it, sending him crashing into cabinets in his home.
Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, took Reid’s place for the opening of the 114th Congress, but there wasn’t much for him to do since the Republicans are now in charge.
The limelight was on Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who took over as majority leader by welcoming the 13 new senators — all but one of them Republican — and wishing Reid a speedy recovery.
“Senator Reid is a former boxer,” McConnell said. “He’s tough. I know he’ll be back in fighting form soon enough.”
There also was tension in the House, where Republicans who consider Boehner insufficiently conservative made a point of sullying his return as speaker. In all, 25 Republicans scattered their votes among other candidates or voted present; Boehner kept the job with 216 votes.
Still, the mood on the floor was mostly jovial as lawmakers gathered to launch the new session, shaking hands and waving to friends in the visitor’s gallery. The House grew hushed for the roll call to choose the speaker but even then members’ children brought along for the special day — babes in arms, young girls in black velvet dresses and boys in miniature suits and ties — punctuated the stillness with squirming.
Boehner, known for easily tearing up, dabbed his eyes as he made his way across the floor to accept the honor and swear in the rest of the House. He acknowledged that many Americans are pessimistic about Congress members working together to get things done.
“So let’s stand tall and prove the skeptics wrong,” Boehner said.
Although the November election had a big impact — giving Republicans control of both houses — nearly 9 out of 10 faces in the House and Senate are the same as last year.
Only 58 new representatives arrived in the 435-seat House — 43 Republicans and 15 Democrats. The newcomers include the youngest woman elected to Congress, 30-year-old Elise Stefanik of New York, and the first black Republican woman, Mia Love of Utah.
Among the 13 new senators, only six are new to Congress; seven moved over from the House.
The newbies looked to be having the most fun on Day 1.
“It’s very stressful and humbling and exciting all at once,” said Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, who started his morning at the House chaplain’s bipartisan prayer service and squeezed in time to volunteer at a soup kitchen before the House was called into session at noon. Moulton, his parents and about two dozen of his friends and staffers cut up carrots, onions and tomatoes at Martha’s Table.
At the Capitol, newcomers soaked up the historic atmosphere — a building stuffed with statues and flanked with frescos and decorated not only with the familiar cherubs and eagles but also images of songbirds and squirrels and chipmunks.
“It’s been very crazy to be honest,” said newly minted Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. “I have a lot of family and friends in town and it’s more being the sort of tour director, but also making sure you make all your votes and you’re in the right place on the floor.”
Gallego, one of the younger members at 35, had so many well-wishers that he staged a ceremonial swearing-in at a nearby law office to accommodate them all — his wife and three sisters and assorted extended family members, Marine buddies he served with in Iraq, the high school librarian who helped him study to become the first in his family to attend college, and the boss from his first job at a burger joint.
Senators’ family members were greeted with Vice President Joe Biden’s jokey shtick as they lined up for photos of ceremonial swearings-in after the official group oath-taking. To Biden, every senator’s mother is “Mom” and gets a big hug.
Gallego is among several veterans of 21st-century wars who have been trickling into Congress in recent years, even as its last two World War II veterans left office in December.
Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally was only declared winner of her race last month, after a recount, leaving little time to prepare for service in the House. Her military experience helped.
“In the military we often go to a new assignment and have to figure out what you’re responsible for and take the reins and hit the ground running,” said McSally, R-Ariz.
She and other newcomers spoke confidently about ending partisan rancor and gridlock. Some old hands sounded less optimistic as the House turned from ceremony to controversial measures Tuesday afternoon.
Debating on the floor, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said he hoped the day of swearing-in “doesn’t trigger two years of swearing at.”