CAPITOL HILL —
The new U.S. Congress will soon confront an issue that has plagued and paralyzed its predecessors: the country's runaway national debt. Congress remains politically divided, and its ability to find common ground will be put to the test once again.
Smiles abounded Thursday at the Capitol, where Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath of office to new and returning senators.
BIDEN: “… and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter, so help you God?”
SENATORS: “I do.”
Moments earlier, in a particularly poignant moment, Biden helped escort Senator Mark Kirk to the chamber for the first time since the Illinois Republican suffered a major stroke last year.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: “Welcome back, senator!”
KIRK: “Thank you. Thank you, guys. It is good to see you guys.”
But the pomp and ceremony of a new Congress’ first day could not hide raw feelings that linger after cliffhanger votes in both chambers this week to avert automatic tax hikes mandated by the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
Shortly after senators were sworn in, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to administer a blunt reality check.
“In a couple of months, the president [Barack Obama] will ask us to raise the nation’s debt limit," he said. "We cannot agree to increase that borrowing limit without agreeing to reforms that lower the avalanche of spending that is creating this debt in the first place.”
McConnell flatly rejected President Barack Obama’s call for revenue increases as part of deficit reduction pacts in the coming year. And so, on the new Congress’ first day, partisan battle lines were drawn on the nation’s most pressing issue.
Many new senators already have drawn their own lines in the sand. Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren campaigned - and won - on a pledge to safeguard America’s social safety net from budget cuts.
“To all the seniors who deserve to retire with the security they earned, we are going to make sure your Medicare and Social Security benefits are protected, and that millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” she said.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said new lawmakers are joining a broken legislature. “We have, at a very accelerated pace, made some very unwise choices about how we do the people’s business. This has been the most dysfunctional Senate in history,” he said.
And yet, as a new Congress convenes, many lawmakers could not help but strike a hopeful and optimistic tone. Republican Senator Bob Corker hailed a bipartisan effort to reform Senate rules and limit the use of procedural motions to block legislation. He said Congress has a chance to be productive for the American people.
“Look, making tough decisions sometimes creates drama, and hopefully we will act more like adults and make these decisions in advance and not at the last minute,” said Corker.
He added that a politically polarized Congress simply reflects a politically polarized electorate. “The country is divided," he said. "People do not realize that the Senate and the House really represent the views of the American people.”
Democratic Senator Max Baucus does not predict Congress will magically improve the way it does business. But he added that, at a minimum, gridlock cannot get any worse than it has been.
“There is no place to go but up. And many of us here are going to do all we can to make that happen,” he said.