Day of records and firsts as 113th US Congress opens

New York Times News Service, Washington

Sat, Jan 05, 2013 - Page 7

As the 113th US Congress opens, the Senate and the House of Representatives are starting to look a little bit more like the people they represent.

The new Congress includes a record number of women (101 across both chambers, a number that includes three nonvoting members), as well as various firsts for the numbers of Latinos and Asians as well as Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. However, it was the rise of the female legislator — 20 in the Senate and 81 in the House — that had the Capitol thrumming with excited potential on Thursday.

The first serious display of XX-chromosome strength occurred well before noon, when the 61 female members of the House Democratic Caucus gathered on the Capitol steps for a group photograph.

With many of the women dressed in vibrant hues, they assembled in the chilly January air, waving to old friends and greeting the new. They laughed and joked, inviting Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat who retired this week, to hop in the picture. (He politely demurred.)

A young male aide to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, scurried to grab some of the members’ coats, juggling the fur and wool in his left hand while trying to snap iPhone photos with his right.

“I think women bring a slightly different perspective,” said Representative Tammy Duckworth, who, with Representative Tulsi Gabbard, is among the first female combat veterans elected to Congress.

“The women, I think, are going to reach across the aisle a lot more. We’re a lot more pragmatic, but we do come from all different backgrounds,” she said.

This Congress promises to be more diverse than its predecessors in several ways. On hand at the Capitol were Representative Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator; Gabbard, the first Hindu representative; and Senator Mazie Hirono, the first Buddhist senator. Representative Kyrsten Sinema also became the first openly bisexual member to serve in Congress.

Although the number of blacks in Congress remained at 43, Tim Scott, previously a Republican House member from South Carolina, became the first black senator from his state, as well as the first black Republican in the Senate since 1979.

After she was sworn in for her second term, Senator Claire McCaskill said women were making progress in the Senate.

“I don’t think we should be satisfied until we have the same number of women in the Senate that represent the percentage of the population that are women, so we still have a long way to go,” she said.

The day began on a touching note, when Senator Mark Kirk, who was returning to Congress after a stroke last January, climbed the steps to the Senate chamber with the help of a cane and the moral support of his colleagues. He was met by the Illinois delegation, most of the Senate, and US Vice President Joe Biden, who greeted him with a hug.

Kirk may also have some explaining to do to Representative Paul Ryan and vice-presidential rival to Biden, after Kirk told the vice president: “It was a good debate. I was rooting for you.”

When Kirk, his face contorted in concentration, slowed near the top of the steps, his colleagues called out: “Almost there” and “A few more” and then erupted in applause when he reached the landing, triumphant.

On the House side, the first day was filled with familiar ritual — the children romping in the well of the House, the speaker’s roll call vote — but there were also some sweet notes.

Representative Dave Camp, who is recovering from treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, sat in the chamber with his children beside him. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, wandered the aisles with her daughter on her hip.

The opening of the 113th Congress had a decidedly first day of school feeling, with many of the members flanked by proud parents, as well as children of their own.

Some freshman members wandered around, half awe-struck and half bewildered, and many aides did not yet have business cards.

“We just moved in,” they said apologetically, over and over.

As the afternoon darkened to evening, House members lined up to have their mock swearing-in picture taken with Speaker John Boehner, narrowly and newly re-elected speaker of the House.

Representative Andy Barr, a freshman Republican, stood with his wife, Carol, and their 21-month-old daughter, Eleanor, whom Boehner kissed on the cheek. Eleanor promptly wiped it away.

“Oh, she’s a big fan of the speaker,” Barr said later. “She just hasn’t had a nap today.”

Representative Joe Kennedy III, the newest elected member of the Kennedy clan, was already fending off rumors that he had higher office on his mind on his first day in the House.

After Senator John Kerry, who will vacate his Senate seat if he is confirmed as US President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, pulled Kennedy aside for a chat, a reporter jokingly asked if Kennedy was considering a run for Kerry’s seat.

“I’m definitely not, so let’s get that as the very first thing,” Kennedy replied, with a laugh. “I’m very happy where I am right now.”

Over at the member photo check-in table, aides were offering lessons in Congress 101: “Remember, they warned, when you go before cameras to have your picture taken with Boehner, be careful what you say. The microphones will pick everything up, and members would be well advised to avoid a gaffe on opening day. There will be plenty of time for that later.”