Some optimism among Minnesota members as Congress reconvenes

John Boehner
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and re-nominated Speaker of the House, gives a thumbs-up as he walks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 3, 2013, during the opening session of the 113th US Congress.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When the 113th Congress officially convened today, the big question on the minds of many Democrats and Republicans was whether the new Congress will be more productive than the last one.

The previous Congress was marked by high stakes confrontations between Republicans who control the House and Democrats in the Senate and the Obama administration — two tumultuous years that culminated in the last-minute efforts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the automatic tax increases and dramatic spending cuts Congress had set in motion for early in the year.

But members of Minnesota's delegation expressed hope that the two parties could work together in the next two years to accomplish significant goals.

Indeed, during moments of pomp and ceremony, there was optimism on Capitol Hill, at least for a day.

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The House of Representatives began its session by again electing Republican U.S. Rep. John Boehner as speaker, although U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 6th District, kept things suspenseful by at first missing her vote.

That initially left Boehner a few votes short of what he needed to return to the post. Eventually Bachmann made her way into the chamber and cast the 218th ballot for Boehner, who is an unpopular figure among some conservative Republicans these days for allowing the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff to receive a vote a few days earlier.

Given the sharp partisan divide in Congress and the prospects for compromise may be few. But Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was sworn in for a second term by Vice President Joe Biden, is optimistic.

Swearing in ceremony
Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate oath to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., accompanied by her husband John Bessler and daughter Abigail. during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, as the 113th Congress officially began.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

"As Abraham Lincoln once said, you must think anew and act anew and this is our opportunity," she said.

Klobuchar pointed to the major legislation that did pass in the previous Congress, including the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, and noted that most of it emerged first from the traditionally rule-bound and slow-moving Senate.

"We may not always agree on the solutions but we have spent a lot of time in the Senate working together, Democrats and Republicans, to at least have a common ground to agree on what the problems are," she said.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, also pointed to the fiscal cliff vote, where 85 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to prevent tax hikes on most Americans while raising them on the wealthy, as a sign that perhaps the fierce partisanship of the past two years was ebbing.

"I'm very optimistic though after this last vote when we saw moderate Republicans working with moderate Democrats to put together a package that put America first," McCollum said.

From across the aisle, Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen said he thought the Ways and Means Committee he sits on would be able to craft a bipartisan tax overhaul plan with the Senate.

Doing so, Paulsen said, could be a way of returning Congress to a state of normalcy that hasn't existed there for several years.

"That will move us away from these Washington quick fixes and in two months having a new cliff to more long term solutions," said Paulsen, who represents the 3rd District. "That can be a tough and arduous task but that is the direction that we do need to head."

Paulsen's GOP colleague, U.S. Rep. John Kline of the 2nd District, said that as the chairman of the House Education Committee, he still hopes to take care of unfinished business from last term. Kline wants to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law to revisit the annual progress requirements that are causing many schools to receive a failing grade and make changes to federal student loans that would allow the market to set interest rates instead of the federal government.

But Kline said that work won't begin right away because Congress has a few more fiscal time bombs to defuse, including raising the nation's borrowing limit, addressing automatic spending cuts that kick in two months from now and crafting a government spending bill that lasts through the end of October.

"Those are huge battles frankly, and they will be battles, because we have major differences in our approach to how to fix those," Kline said. "Those are going to dominate almost everything that happens up until the end of March."

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents the 7th District, said he thinks the rancor of the fiscal cliff deal will carry into this new Congress.

"It's going to be ugly," said Peterson, the longest serving member of state's delegation. "If you think this was a problem, wait until two months from now."

Peterson spent much of the last two years working on a new farm bill only to see it be ignored by Republicans leaders and the Obama administration in the fiscal cliff deal.

He said he won't do it again unless he receives written assurances the bill will come to the floor for a vote.

"Why would I go start trying to write another bill if we're going to be put in the same position as we were last year?" Peterson asked.

Instead, Peterson said he plans to focus his efforts on areas where he thinks some bipartisan cooperation might still be possible, such as oversight of the food stamp program.