There was a tradition where swearing-in day for a new Congress was all about sweetness and light; many hugs and kisses, nice receptions and small dinners; and families, friends, staff, and contributors joined the old and the veteran Members of a new Congress in meaningless chatter and thank-yous. It is fairly clear that while the external façade of the old days was still in place yesterday, there was a real sense of tension and folks still angry; ready to fight on, with a new or at least modified cast of characters.
Sure there are more women and Latinos in the 213rd Congress and that certainly is positive, but the residue of the bitterness of the fighting over the past few weeks is still very much present. In fact as many people observed the ugliest fights may be yet to come. It also appears that the usual time-out for finding out how to maneuver about the Capitol and learning the rules and norms will be very much fast-tracked.
New Members used to be able to leisurely learn the ropes at least until the State of the Union Address and then had a slightly increased work load until the Presidents’ Week district work break. They heard the President, received his budget, and started to focus on Committee work slowly orienting themselves to life on the Hill. Even the old-timers built in this type of schedule so that would be prepared to launch their sub-Committees ahead by the end of February. It is now evident to all that by that time this year there is likely to be considerably more blood letting by both sides as sequestration, the debt ceiling, tax reform, entitlement reform, and the continuing resolution all move into a Congress facing a tough winter session.
One distraction from this focus will be the number of Cabinet appointments upon which the Senate will need to act during the next several weeks. Here again, something which historically was relatively smooth sailing could explode into a confrontation with the White House, like Obama already saw with Susan Rice. While John Kerry’s nomination should move effortlessly, new secretaries of Homeland Security or Treasury plus a possible nomination of Chuck Hagel at Defense could encounter extensive, labored hearings which will distract from the critical business at hand.
The unknown monkey wrench in this agenda could be any one of a number of international events which would distract the President and the key relevant new national security committee leaders in Washington. The Iran discussions are due to commence shortly; Syria will explode, how-when-and in what directions remains unclear; Russia’s involvement in all the Middle East action leaves many in Washington (and in Israel) anxious; North Korea is still planning further missile launches; and renewed European economic brinksmanship is still a very real possibility.
There will be a lot of learning and studying on the fly during the next few months, and that is without any consideration of the partisan bickering which will undoubtedly permeate all the discussions.