Congress to Tackle Healthcare, Filibuster Rules

House Republicans passed "cut-go," new rules for paying for legislation.

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On Wednesday, congressional observers were treated to a spectacle which used to be rare—a changeover in power at the House of Representatives.

Both the House and the Senate swore in new members, and the new 242-seat Republican majority in the House handily elected Ohio Representative John Boehner to become Speaker of the House. In between raucous cheers and some campaign-style rhetoric from both sides, now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi handed Boehner the gavel and watched him give his first speech as the House Speaker. [Read more about Speaker Boehner.]

Both parties are promising to work with each other to reduce the deficit and grow the economy. “My belief has always been, we can disagree without being disagreeable to each other,” Boehner said in his address to Congress, while also repeating Republican complaints that the Democrats shut them out when they were in the minority. “That’s why it is critical this institution operate in a manner that permits a free exchange of ideas, and resolves our honest differences through a fair debate and a fair vote.” [See where Pelosi gets campaign cash.]

It didn’t take long for the parties to find something to disagree about. After a ceremonial swearing-in of members, the House moved to a Republican rules package which Democrats opposed. Democrats blasted the Republican plan to alter “pay-go,” their policy which required any bill to be paid for, either by eliminating tax breaks or by cutting spending. The Republicans’ alternative, “cut-go,” would only allow bills to be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere in government. Democrats said the new rule would only balloon the deficit while protecting corporate tax loopholes, but supporters said it would bring government spending under control. The rules were adopted through a mostly party-line vote. [See a slide show of new faces in the Senate.]

After a few more opening ceremonies, including a reading of the U.S. Constitution by representatives on Thursday, the House is expected to move to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the landmark healthcare reform law passed by Congress last year. But as President Obama is unlikely to sign such a bill, the move is largely symbolic.

Shortly after the swearing in newly elected senators, the Senate, which is still under Democratic control, immediately launched into a debate over proposed reforms of its rules and procedures. Several Democrats are rallying behind a proposal from New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall to reform the filibuster, by requiring those wishing to block legislation to continuously debate it on the Senate floor. The bill would also rid the practice of secret holds, or anonymous blocks on bills and nominations. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a long-time foe of the filibuster, offered a more aggressive reform, which would lower the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster if it is voted on multiple times. [Read more about filibuster reform.]

The Senate is expected to delay a vote on those matters until after it returns from recess on January 24.