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01.04.11

Freshmen Hit the Hill

A Republican grabs the speaker's gavel, commuters invade Congress, the iPad arrives, the GOP gets less geriatric, and the Senate prepares for its longest day ever. The Daily Beast's guide to a brand-new Washington.

President Obama’s headache begins now: The House’s new Republican majority was sworn in Wednesday afternoon. The ceremony kicked off with a speech by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who introduced incoming Speaker John Boehner, who was elected speaker by a 241-173 vote. (Nineteen Democrats opted to not vote for Nancy Pelosi.) Boehner then took the oath of office before administering it, en masse, to the rest of the House. After that, representatives dispersed for individual photo-op swearing-in ceremonies. On the other side of the Capitol, Vice President Joe Biden swore in new senators.

Samuel P. Jacobs on 14 things you need to know about the new session. Plus, meet the Boehner family.

On Wednesday, John Boehner will bang the speaker’s gavel and a whole new order will come to Washington. With change comes confusion: Where are you allowed to bring your iPad? Who is that lady wearing all those hats? And how will endangered Democrats manage their lot? Fortunately, we’ve got answers.

Here are the 14 things you need to know about the 112th Congress.

1. The commuters are taking over Congress.

It used to be that Washington was a family town. At midcentury, Lisa Miller writes in this week’s Newsweek, 50 or so women came together weekly as members of the Senate Wives’ Club. Today, only one newly elected member of Congress, Utah Republican Mike Lee, is planning on bringing the wife and kids to Washington, according to Miller’s survey. With living alone in D.C. becoming the new normal, congressmen socialize less, contributing to the gridlock of our political culture. Lack of family in town also explains why this Congress could be the sleepiest on record—at least 15 percent of representatives plan on sleeping in their offices, according to The Wall Street Journal.

2. The Senate is preparing for the longest day ever.

Sen. Tom Udall is preparing a challenge to the Senate’s rules Wednesday, hoping to bring an end to the much-despised filibuster. The parliamentary jujitsu needed to alter the Senate rulebook requires that the Senate technically go into recess during its first legislative day. This means that the calendar magically pauses on Day 1. According to the Senate Historical Office, the single longest “day” in Senate history was actually 162 days, thanks to Robert Byrd’s challenge to filibuster rules in 1980.

3. The Republicans are getting less geriatric.

Fresh-faced Reps. Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are getting some company this session. We made fun of the Republicans when they said a 62-year-old former congressman was among their “ Young Guns” running for Congress last fall. And yet the 112th Congress has sipped from the fountain of youth. The addition of 87 freshmen Republicans lowered the party’s average age from 56.5 to 54.9 in the House of Representatives, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. Meanwhile, the Democrats are grayer, seeing their average age climb from 58 to 60.2

4. The iPad is making its debut on the House floor.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, joined the company of technology visionaries when he took his iPad with him to the speaker’s podium last month. The iPad’s trip to the House well was the virgin journey for the hot piece of hardware, but it won’t be its last. New House rules introduced by the Republicans will allow the Apple tablet and devices onto the floor as long as they don’t interfere with decorum. Cuellar told Politico that he likes the “Congress in Your Pocket” app, which provides the biographical skinny on fellow members. “There's no Angry Birds on my iPad app, I can assure you," Cuellar said.

Video screenshot

5. The endangered Democrats are looking for cover.

Political obituary writers, sharpen your pencils. The next election cycle could put to death a breed of Democrat, the sort most comfortable on the seat of a tractor, the kind who is willing to attack sacred cows like affirmative action or balk on the Democratic dogma of being pro-choice. The endangered Democrat list is growing bigger by the day, as senators like Montana’s Jon Tester, Virginia’s Jim Webb, and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey figure out how far they should run from their party in order to keep their seats in 2012.

6. One hat-loving new member of Congress will have to go bare-headed.

In a sea of blazers and boring pantsuits comes Frederica Wilson, a newly elected Florida Democrat. Wilson says she owns nearly 300 hats. She wears them daily. Her style, Robin Givhan writes, “blend[s] church lady formality with rodeo queen panache.” One early problem for the exuberantly hatted legislator: The House has forbidden headwear since 1837. Wilson has already agreed to be sworn in without a Stetson on her head. But she will continue to be a milliner’s rock star. Said one hat-maker, “In her world, she’s Lady Gaga.”

7. The White House is getting a pair of brawlers.

With President Obama’s re-election fight just around the corner, you can bet Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will be transformed into brawlers, the president’s personal Praetorian Guard. What will this mean? Pelosi and Reid will work to snuff out any legislation that could force Obama to take unpopular stands. If the rowdy House Republicans pass a bill freezing government spending—something that the White House might not want to endorse loudly—Harry Reid will make sure the measure disappears into the bowels of the Democrat-controlled Senate. Pelosi too may rise as the voice for liberal causes the president will rather duck come Election Day.

8. GOP committee chairmen are on the rise.

House committees will look very different with Republicans at their chairs. Keep your eye on Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican, who takes over Energy and Commerce and has been a moving force behind next week’s planned vote to repeal Obamacare. California’s Darrell Issa takes the helm at Oversight and Government Reform and has already asked corporations what rules they’d like to see abolished. Issa has announced a half-dozen investigations, from Fannie Mae to WikiLeaks. Spencer Bachus of Alabama will run Financial Services. He’ll be far different, in style and substance, from Barney Frank and wants to repeal “job-killing provisions” of the Dodd-Frank Act that slapped tougher restrictions on Wall Street and the banking industry.

9. The vice president from the Sunshine State is making his entrance.

While governors, former governors, and Fox News commentators audition for the role of presidential candidate, the Republican vice-presidential nomination is a lock. Get ready for new Florida Senator Marco Rubio to be playing the role of GOP attack dog come summer of 2012. Check out The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon on what makes Rubio a sure thing for the No. 2 slot on the Republican ticket.

10. The toughest job in Congress will belong to Boehner’s chief of staff.

Meet Barry Jackson, John Boehner’s chief of staff, who will manage the new speaker’s office and be in charge of making sure his young Tea Party charges don’t tear the House down. A former deputy to Karl Rove, Jackson is schooled in the dark arts of electoral success. He was also on the frontlines of the last Republican revolution as an architect of the 1994 “Contract With America,” so he knows something about how fast a Republican majority can slip away.

11. The Senate is getting even less black.

With Barack Obama working over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his temporary replacement Roland Burris back in Illinois, the Senate has not one African-American member. The three black candidates who ran for election in 2010—Florida’s Kendrick Meek, South Carolina’s Alvin Greene, and Georgia’s Mike Thurmond—all lost. This is a bad trend for Democrats, particularly while Republicans celebrate the addition of two African Americans—Tim Scott and Allen West—to their caucus in the House.

12. It’s John McCain’s curtain call.

Everyone wants to know what the Arizona senator’s last act will look like, and not just political reporters who know that the former presidential nominee’s contortions make for good copy. Friends hoped that McCain’s victory over a primary challenger would mellow him. “Certainly everyone’s hope is that it would be cathartic. Take your anger out on this punching bag and then come back, but he hasn’t,” one told The Daily Beast. Whether McCain returns to his old maverick ways matters a great deal to the president’s agenda. If the two were to ever find common cause, the Senate would take on a new shape.

13. The Hispanic Caucus is angry.

The Dream Act, promising a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors, was deferred, and Latino lawmakers are none too pleased about it. Even before the act failed, Chicago Representative Luis Gutiérrez told The Daily Beast that he was preparing his colleagues for civil disobedience and perhaps civil war within the Democratic Party itself. “The Democratic Party is the party of immigrants. But its leader—in this case, Barack Obama—has to continue to be challenged,” Gutiérrez said.

14. The House is mastering symbolism.

On January 12, the House Republicans will vote to repeal the national health-care reform act passed by the Democratic Congress last year. This bill will then move to the Senate, where the Democrats still reign if by diminished power, and then it will go absolutely nowhere. The vote is likely the first of many to be taken by the exhilarated House Republicans that won’t see the light of day, either disappeared by Harry Reid or vetoed by the president’s pen.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.