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US Congress: The new class

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Nancy Pelosi, John BoehnerBy Camille Elhassani

The 112th US Congress has opened. Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives, and Democrats remain in control of the Senate but with a smaller majority. The balance of power in Washington changed after last November’s Congressional Midterm Elections. The American public, angry at the state of the economy and high unemployment, voted for change.

On Wednesday, the new members of Congress were sworn-in. Republican John Boehner has taken over the job of Speaker of the House from Democrat Nancy Pelosi. In assuming the third highest position in the US government, Boehner said, “Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.”

It’s not the first time Pelosi and Boehner have done this dance.Four years ago, she led a Capitol Hill Two-Step, taking over the Speaker’s job from Boehner after Democrats won the majority in the 2006 election. This time though, she’s assuming his old role of Minority Leader.

Pelosi and Boehner switched more than titles.  They also switched offices (the Speaker gets the big office).  Reportedly she’s had her new space painted and re-carpeted to get rid of the cigarette stink. Boehner is a heavy smoker who, despite rules against smoking in federal buildings, often smokes in his office.

Just after being sworn in, Boehner began to make changes. He’s introduced new rules which will consolidate his party’s power. The Republican leadership says the rules will reduce government waste. Each bill will have to include a citation of constitutional authority for its existence, and members of Congress will have to explain how the measure will be paid for without raising taxes. In addition, the new rules seek to bring Congress into the digital age. All bills will now be placed online.

Then on Thursday, Republicans plan to read the entire US Constitution in a symbolic gesture of their commitment to the absolutism of the words in it.

The pomp and ceremony of the swearing-in also comes with a heap of partisan rancor. Republicans have promised to investigate the Obama administration for mismanagement and waste and repeal or roll back some of the legislation passed under the last Congress. In a largely symbolic gesture, the Republican leadership plans to cut their own staff’s salaries by five per cent. It will save $35m, only a fraction of the $100bn they’ve pledged to cut from federal spending.

The White House is also poised for a few staff changes, though none of the top contenders are new to the Obama administration or Democratic politics. The face of the Obama administration, press secretary Robert Gibbs, will step down early next month. Obama told the New York Times on Wednesday that despite the changes, “The American people are expecting us to hit the ground running and start working with this new Congress to promote job growth and keep the recovery going.” There’s no word yet on who will replace Gibbs, though deputy press secretary Bill Burton has long been rumoured to be the top contender.

President Obama is also expected to announce his new chief of staff in the coming days. The two frontrunners are the interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and former commerce secretary under president Bill Clinton, William Daley.  He currently works for investment giant JP Morgan in Chicago. Daley would help Obama mend fences with the business community.

Also expected later this week is the appointment of a new top economic adviser. Gene Sperling will likely get his old job back. He held it previously under president Clinton.

And there will be more new faces in the administration over the coming months, with the defence secretary Robert Gates expected to step down and senior White House adviser David Axelrod heading back to Chicago soon.

For now, the new class is getting used to the demands of the job. A new dynamic will be established between Congress and the White House over major issues like funding the government and what to do with the detainees housed at Guantanamo Bay.  These action items promise to be showdowns between Republicans and the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the White House. How much will be political posturing for the 2012 presidential elections and how much will be governing remains to be seen.

Camille Elhassani is Al Jazeera English's Senior White House Producer.


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