Ohio Congressman John Boehner held onto his gavel after winning re-election as speaker of the U.S. House. Many conservative Republicans had been unhappy with Boehner for going along with the recent fiscal cliff compromise, but in the end most voted for him.
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The 113th Congress was sworn in today, bringing with it a number of firsts. White men now make up a minority of the 200 members in the House Democratic Caucus.
CORNISH: In the Senate, there will be 20 women, an all-time high.
SIEGEL: Also, the first Republican African-American senator in more than three decades.
CORNISH: We'll hear more about the Senate in a moment. But first, some drama in the House on a day normally reserved for ceremony and celebration. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, Ohio Congressman John Boehner kept the speaker's gavel but only after some tense moments during the roll call vote for re-election.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Boehner had already been picked by his fellow Republicans in a private vote. The vote of the full House today was essentially ceremonial. There shouldn't have been any question about Boehner winning the speakership. But as the fiscal cliff fight dragged on, conservatives in the conference became increasingly unhappy. The whispers got louder.
Out in the conservative blogosphere, it was more like shouts. If enough Republicans didn't vote or voted for someone else, election of the speaker would have to go to a second ballot. Boehner could be ousted. And so when the voting began, there was some suspense. With the third name called, the drama heightened.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Amash.
KEITH: Justin Amash is one of the most conservative members of the House, voted in as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010. His vote went to a fellow Tea Party conservative.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Labrador.
KEITH: Unlike most votes, which are electronic, for this one, each member had their name called. They stood and yelled out their choice. Democrats overwhelmingly voted for the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and the Republicans voted for Boehner. But in several cases, there was silence. Two voted for former Congressman Allen West, who recently lost his re-election bid. Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp is one of those who voted against the speaker and has vocally questioned his leadership after being booted from a committee assignment last month.
REPRESENTATIVE TIM HUELSKAMP: I think it was, you know, a vote of no confidence. I mean, in this town, the intimidation and pressure was intense. There are a lot of people that wanted to vote no.
KEITH: Several Republicans milled around the chamber with what looked to be scorecards, counting the votes and the non-votes. There were serious faces and frenzied conversations.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The reading clerk will now call the names of the representatives-elect who did not answer the first call of the roll.
KEITH: Slowly, and at least one case, reluctantly, a handful of non-votes spoke up and selected Boehner. The suspense was over.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Therefore, the Honorable John A. Boehner of the state of Ohio, having received the majority of the votes cast, is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives for the 113th Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
KEITH: It's not going to be an easy job. Boehner will lead a majority slightly smaller than the one he ushered in in 2011. Then Republicans had just notched a massive victory, largely a result of the success of Tea Party candidates. But it didn't take long for Boehner's newly, more conservative conference to start causing him trouble. Many of those people are back, and some of them just voted against him in the speakership election.
As he accepted the gavel for another term, Boehner talked about the challenges ahead. And, as he's known to do, choked back tears.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: If you have come here humbled by the opportunity to serve, if you have come here to be the determined voice of the people, if you have come here to carry the standard of leadership demanded not just by our constituents but by the times, then you have come to the right place.
KEITH: Two years ago, the tone was very different.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
BOEHNER: My belief has always been that we can disagree without being disagreeable.
KEITH: There was at least some nod to bipartisanship, a hope to get things done despite differences. That optimism was gone from today's remarks, with the speaker instead focusing on the fights ahead.
BOEHNER: It's a big job, and it comes with big challenges. Our government has built up too much debt. Our economy is not producing enough jobs, and these are not separate problems.
KEITH: There are potentially three big battles in the next three months - first, the debt ceiling, then the automatic spending cuts of the sequester, then the funding of the government - all big deadlines, all likely painful partisan feuds. Boehner may have won the speakership, but it may be a job he ultimately wishes he didn't have. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.