Newly elected Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) stood at the front of the House of Representatives and gestured to end the standing ovation and cheers for him.
“It’s still just me,” said the plain-spoken man who went from humble beginnings to third in line to the presidency.
The Members of the new 112th Congress officially met for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. The Republican majority unanimously elected Boehner to be Speaker of the House by 241 votes.
“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. 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,” said Boehner in his election speech.
Boehner’s big moment was brief and low-key. His large family from Ohio watched the events from the Speaker’s box, overlooking the House floor. His wife Debbie, daughters Lindsay and Tricia, and 11 of his 12 siblings seemed unaware of the attention on them.
In contrast, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was sworn in as Speaker four years ago, the event was a high drama, flashy, celebrity-filled, mainstream media love-fest.
The vote for Speaker was a voice vote, so as each Member’s name was called out, he or she rose and loudly said their choice. Every Republican — incumbent and freshmen — said “Boehner.”
However, the Democrats showed a divided caucus and dissatisfaction with Pelosi staying on as their leader after losing the midterm elections. She got 173 votes, but the votes against Pelosi were significant in that it showed her weakness inside the Democratic Caucus.
She sat in the middle of the floor during the roll call while 18 of her Democrats called out other names for Speaker. Each time a Democrat yelled out a name other than Pelosi, the Democrat side of the aisle made grumbling noises of discontent. Her opposition votes were spread among six people. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) who ran against Pelosi for Minority Leader last month received the most with 11 votes.
Although Boehner becoming Speaker was a foregone conclusion, the process of voting and electing demonstrated that the two political parties could be genial and respectful of the House and democracy. When the clerk said “John A. Boehner is elected Speaker of the House,” both the Republicans and the Democrats stood up, applauded and cheered.
Boehner was not on the floor during the voting, so the first sighting of the new Speaker was after he was elected. He entered from the center door, and then walked down the middle aisle of the chamber, shaking hands and hugging fellow Members on both sides of the aisle.
Wearing a pale blue tie and his signature tan, Boehner looked calm as he stood at the Speaker’s chair while Pelosi gave her final speech.
Pelosi referred to the “peaceful and respectful” transfer of power between the two party leaders. She gave a speech about her accomplishments, which got half-hearted applause from the Democrats. She then went off-script to make a dig at Boehner. “I now will pass this gavel, which is a lot larger than most gavels, but was the choice of Speaker Boehner.”
Boehner ignored the dig, took the large gavel, and held it up as the victor. He silenced the cheering, put down the gavel, and introduced his family. Boehner then gave his speech, sticking almost word-for-word to the prepared text.
Boehner has a Midwestern speaking style — simple phrases, clear messages, and a flat tone of voice. His low-key speech, however, reflected the mood of the nation.
“We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in 10 of our neighbors are looking for work. Health care costs are still rising for families and small businesses. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy,” said Boehner.
“Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. 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,” he said.
Boehner’s speech showed his understanding that the American people do not want President Obama’s fancy rhetoric, nor hear more politicians talk. They want solutions, and Boehner gave specifics.
“Legislators and the public will have three days to read bills before they come to a vote,” he said of the new GOP rules being instituted. “Legislation will be more focused, properly scrutinized, and constitutionally sound. . . . Old rules that have made it easy to increase spending will be replaced by new reforms that make it easier to cut spending. We will start by cutting Congress’ own budget.”
Boehner is not a fancy politician, and his speeches will not be remembered in history books. But he was talking directly to public when he said his “aim is to give the government back to the American people.”
Throughout the transition period, Boehner and his fellow Republicans have been very careful to show that they realize that the landslide Midterm Elections were about the American people wanting to change Washington, not party politics.
“This is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us,” he said. “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.”
Almost a quarter of the Members on the floor were newly elected in November, the largest freshmen class in almost 20 years. Of the 96 freshmen, 87 are Republicans, and about half of those are in the Tea Party movement.
“To our new members – Democratic and Republican – as you take the oath today, I know you will do so mindful of this shared goal, and the trust placed in you by your constituents,” Boehner said in his speech.
He ended by saying, “Welcome to the people’s House. Welcome to the 112th Congress.”
After his speech, Boehner took the oath of office. He looked somber as he held up his right hand and swore to uphold the Constitution. For the first time, he then gaveled down to bring the House in order and administer the oath to the other Members.
Then, all the Members of Congress stood up from their leather chairs. They raised up their right hands. as Boehner read the oath of office. When he finished, all the Members replied in unison, “I do.”
And with that, the 112th Congress began to work the will of the American people.