The U.S. Congress prepared Thursday to welcome dozens of new members to the harsh reality of a bitterly divided government and big fights in the coming weeks over how to make sure the country can continue to pay its bills. The top Republican in Congress was expected to keep his job, despite bruising fights in recent days with members of his own party over fiscal issues.
The outgoing Congress, which has been criticized as the least productive one in more than 60 years, staggered to an end this week by passing a limited deal to avoid the worst of the so-called "fiscal cliff," a self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline for widespread tax increases and deep spending cuts to take hold. After near rebellion by tax-opposing conservatives in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the deal passed late Tuesday to raise taxes on the richest Americans while protecting the middle class and the poor.
President Barack Obama signed the bill early Thursday.
The new 113th Congress now faces similar battles over raising the country's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit and those $109 billion in spending cuts for the military and domestic programs, which this week's deal delayed by just two months.
The new Congress has the same power balance as the outgoing one: Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans control the House.
And Republican John Boehner is expected to remain as House speaker, even after being blasted by party members Wednesday for putting off a vote on a $60 billion aid package for New York and New Jersey communities hit hard by the deadly Superstorm Sandy two months ago. Boehner smoothed down anger by promising a vote on some of that aid Friday, with another vote on the rest on Jan. 15.
As Obama secured a second term in the November elections, Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge. That ensures that Sen. Harry Reid will remain in charge. Reid had a bad week himself, after his frustrated Republican counterpart in the Senate instead reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran, to put together the eventual fiscal cliff deal.
Republicans keep their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 235-199.
The new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the dysfunctional 112th Congress. The small-government tea party group within the Republican ranks insists on fiscal discipline in the face of growing deficits, and it has pressed for deep cuts in spending as part of a reduced role for the federal government.
Democrats envision a government with enough resources to help the less fortunate and press for the wealthiest to pay more in taxes.
"We can only hope for more help," said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. "Any time you have new members arriving, you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and kind of a vitality that is needed. We hope that they're coming eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically."
The next two months will be crucial, with tough economic issues looming. Congress put off for just eight weeks the automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs that were due to begin with the new year. The question of raising the nation's borrowing authority also must be decided. Another round of ugly negotiations between Obama and Congress is not far off.
The 12 newly elected senators include Rep. Tim Scott, the first black Republican in decades. The Senate now has three Hispanics — Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and one of the new members, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. There will be 20 women in the 100-member Senate, the highest number yet.
At least one longtime Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is expected to be departing in a few weeks after being nominated by Obama to be secretary of state once Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down. That opens the door to former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, the only incumbent senator to lose in November's elections, to possibly make a bid to return to Washington.
Eighty-two freshmen join the House — 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. Women will total 81 in the 435-member body.