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First Thoughts: What GOP control of the House means (and doesn't)

What GOP control of the House means… And what it doesn’t mean… Excerpt of Boehner’s speech today: “This is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us.”… Today’s transfer-of-power ceremony in the House begins at noon ET… Around 2:00 pm ET, Pelosi will speak and then Boehner will… The Dem-controlled Senate also convenes at noon… The 112th Congress by the numbers… Remembering the Clinton-vs.-Gingrich “Showdown”… If asked, Daley will accept… McConnell’s reminder on filibuster reform… And meet the players to watch in the new Congress.


*** What GOP control of the House means… : It isn’t every day on Capitol Hill when a political party regains control of the House of Representatives; in fact, it’s now happened only seven times since World War II. Yet as John Boehner today becomes the House’s 53rd different speaker, it’s important to distinguish what this GOP control means and doesn’t mean. Here’s what it DOES mean. One, Republicans now get to control everything in the chamber. As NBC’s Mike Viqueira has pointed out, this is everything from which bills will be considered for debate on the floor (like the upcoming vote to repeal the health law), to what is served for lunch in the cafeteria. Two, it means that Democrats lose their ability to pass legislation without significant GOP support. (Example: If President Obama is able to sign immigration-reform legislation into law, it will have to be a final bill crafted by both the Dem-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House.) And three, it will probably mean plenty of partisan bickering -- though that won’t necessarily be new.

*** … and what it doesn’t mean: But GOP control of the House DOESN’T mean that Republicans have the ability to clear legislation they want to, especially with Dems in control of the Senate and White House. (Example: The health-care repeal is likely to go nowhere in 2011-12.) It also doesn’t mean that we’ll see a flurry of vetoes by President Obama. (The reason: With Dems in charge of the Senate, any legislation that advances to the president’s desk will have say from the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’s essentially the president’s pocket veto.) And it doesn’t mean we’ll only see congressional gridlock. (After all, it was a Democratic president and a GOP Congress that passed welfare reform in the mid-1990s.) The biggest challenge for Boehner: the expectations game. “The problem is going to be the grassroots movement out in the countryside,” GOP strategist Vin Weber tells the New York Times. “They have no sense of the limits on a party that controls only one of the three seats of power. Managing that relationship is going to be difficult.”

*** “The people’s House”: In his speech today after receiving the gavel from outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Boehner will call the House the “people’s House,” per NBC’s Luke Russert. “The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is,” Boehner will say, according to advanced excerpts of his speech. “They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.” On debt and spending, Boehner will say, per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell: “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."

*** Today’s House tick-tock: Here’s the approximate schedule for today’s events in the House: At noon ET, the clerk of the past Congress calls the House to order, which is followed by a prayer by the chaplain and then the Pledge of Allegiance. At 12:40 pm, the clerk will receive nominations for speaker, with Dem Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) nominating Pelosi and GOP Caucus Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) will nominate Boehner. After that, the roll is called. At 1:45 pm, the clerk announces the results from the vote, which Boehner is expected to easily win. At 2:00 pm, Pelosi will introduce Boehner, and she will make brief remarks. And then Boehner will address the House. At 2:20 pm, Rep. John Dingell -- the dean of the House -- will administer the oath to Boehner, and then Boehner will administer the oath to the members-elect.

*** Today’s Senate tick-tock: Per NBC’s Ken Strickland, here's the latest guidance for the Senate's opening day: The chamber also convenes at noon ET, with the presentation of credentials of re-elected and newly elected. Then Vice President Biden begins swearing in these members on the Senate floor (it happens in groups of four, in alphabetical order). After the swearing-ins, Sen. Tom Udall (D) is expected to offer his resolution on filibuster reform, but the matter won’t be addressed until the Senate returns after its two-week recess on Jan. 24. There likely will be speeches from Udall and fellow Democrats Jeff Merkley, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Ron Wyden, and Claire McCaskill on changing the Senate rules. There also might be speeches celebrating the milestone for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who today becomes the chamber’s longest-serving female senator.

*** The 112th Congress, by the numbers: In the new Congress, Republicans will hold a 242-193 advantage. In the Senate, Democrats will retain a 53-47 majority. (Two senators are independent but caucus with the Democrats). There are 96 new members of the House (87 Republicans, nine Democrats), and that’s the largest percentage of new members since ‘92. The House will include 43 Tea Party-backed members. The Senate will have five Tea Party-backed members. In total, in the Senate, there will be 16 new members (13 Republicans, three Democrats) -- the largest freshman class in that chamber since 1980.

*** Those who forgot the past are doomed to repeat it: Outside the emerging presidential contest, the battle between the Democratic White House and the GOP House will be Washington’s best political story. And, of course, it’s a battle we saw in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton tangled with Newt Gingrich. If you’re interested in the lessons learned from that conflict, a good guide would be this book by legendary political reporter Elizabeth Drew: “Showdown: The Struggle between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House.” In her first chapter, which takes place on the day of Gingrich’s swearing-in as speaker, Drew writes, “Would Clinton or Gingrich be seriously damaged -- or strengthened -- by the events of 1995?... [W]ould the Republicans understand the mandate of the 1994 election, or would they go beyond it? And how would the American people react?”

*** If asked, Daley will accept: Regarding the staff reshuffling at the White House, we can report this: If former Clinton Commerce Secretary Bill Daley is offered the chief of staff job, he will accept.

*** McConnell’s reminder: As mentioned above, Democrats' first order of legislative business in the Senate will be an effort to change the Senate rules, limiting the minority party’s ability to filibuster or block legislation, NBC’s Strickland has reported. But Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is reminding Democrats they fought this fight before, almost 15 years to the day, and lost soundly. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, McConnell recalls the first vote of the 104th Congress on Jan. 5, 1995. It was a bill offered by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin that would have allowed a simple majority of 51 votes to break a filibuster instead of the 60 this is required under current Senate rules. That proposal failed by a vote of 76-19. "What every Republican senator, and many Democratic senators, realized at the time was that any attempt by a sitting majority to grasp at power would come back to haunt us," McConnell writes.

*** Meet the players to watch: MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” today is profiling some of the key House and Senate members to watch in the 112th Congress. And here are things you might not have known about them:

-- GOP Sen. Jim DeMint: ran a market research firm before he ran for office
-- Incoming House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa: a key funder of the campaign to recall CA Gov. Gray Davis (he initially tried to run to replace him, but dropped out shortly after); before coming to Congress in 2001, ran a car alarm company
-- House Oversight Ranking Member Elijah Cummings: was a defense attorney before coming to Congress in 1997
-- Incoming House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan: came to Congress at age 28, worked as then-Sen. Sam Brownback’s legislative director for two years
-- Incoming House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers: known to lead constituent tours of the capital and share bits of trivia and history with the tourists; once rejected calls to run for governor because he couldn’t give up his position in the appropriations committee

Countdown to release of the monthly jobs report: 2 days
Countdown to the RNC chair election: 9 days
Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 48 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 307 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 397 days (*Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up)

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