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Speaker John Boehner officially took the gavel Wednesday, promising openness in the chamber but also committing to advancing the campaign themes that led Republicans to the House majority in the 112th Congress.
“No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road,” the Ohio Republican said in his maiden speech as the 53rd Speaker. “The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions.”
In contrast to the understated tone of his installation as Speaker this week, Boehner hefted a massive wooden ceremonial gavel, but he told his colleagues that he is “but it’s caretaker.” In his speech, He also invoked his own Midwestern modesty and Catholic faith in keeping with his theme of humility.
“The American people have humbled us,” the Ohio Republican said, referencing November’s historic election. “They have refreshed our memories to just how temporary the privilege of serving is.”
New and veteran GOP colleagues cheered wildly as an emotional Boehner walked to the dais, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Boehner’s close friends, sat in the chamber to watch as their colleague raised the gavel for the first time. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the moment, Boehner began his speech with an off-the-cuff line promising, “It’s still just me.”
But the new Republican Speaker assured the House that changes are coming. He hailed the rules package the chamber is set to adopt that will limit the service of committee chairmen and require that bills be posted online three days before they’re considered. He noted the GOP’s renewed focus on the Constitution, which will be read aloud on the floor Thursday, and the party’s immediate efforts to cut spending.
“Today, mindful of the lessons of the past, we open a new chapter,” Boehner said.
Boehner won unanimous approval from his Republican colleagues for Speaker, thus momentarily putting to rest any speculation that conservative freshmen elected as part of the tea party wave held any reservations about their leader. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, saw 19 of her Democratic colleagues defect, casting their Speaker votes for other Members. Boehner won 241 votes to be Speaker, compared with 173 for Pelosi. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) won 11 votes for the post, including one cast by Shuler himself.
Boehner assured Democrats, now the minority party with just 193 to the Republicans’ 242, that the new rules will empower them to serve in a more transparent environment.
“You will not have the right to willfully disrupt the proceedings of the people’s House, but you will always have the right to a robust debate and an open process that allows you to represent your constituents, to make your case, offer alternatives and be heard,” Boehner said.
Democrats have blasted the GOP rules package all week, charging that it promotes budget gimmicks and is filled with loopholes for Republicans to abuse on the floor. Still, Boehner said the rules package aims to “rebuild trust amongst us and the people we serve and, in so doing, provide a guidepost for those who follow us in the service of our nation.”
Boehner’s speech differed sharply from outgoing Speaker Pelosi’s, who spoke just before him, then introduced Boehner and handed him the gavel.
In her address, Pelosi invoked the memory of President John F. Kennedy and her own historic rise as the first female Speaker to reflect on her career.
“When I was first elected Speaker, I called the House to order on behalf of America’s children,” Pelosi said. “Thanks to you, we have stood with those children and for their families, for their health, their education, the safety of the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”
Just as Pelosi sought to deliver on her own promises, Boehner is quickly moving to deliver his. The House is poised to begin debate on legislation to repeal the health care law Friday, with a vote on the bill scheduled for next Wednesday.