January 6, 2015 at 5:49 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
McConnell assumes control of Senate
Dick Durbin, Mitch McConnell, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke on the Senate floor on the first day of the 114th Congress. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

The 114th Congress officially kicked off on Tuesday, marking the first time that Republicans have controlled the U.S. Senate in eight years following the party’s massive gains on Election Day.

The changing of the guard included brief speeches from new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), who’ll now control the floor of the chamber, and Assistant Minority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who was filling for now Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as he recovers from injuries.

Staying true to his stated goal in a Washington Post interview this week of making the Republican Party seem less “scary” ahead of the presidential election, McConnell was brief and non-descript about his plans for the 114th Congress.

“We recognize the enormity of the task before us, we know a lot of hard work awaits, we know many important opportunities await as well,” McConnell said. “I’m really optimistic about what we can accomplish, but I’ll have much more to say about that tomorrow.”

As a result of the election, Republicans began the 114th Congress with an additional nine seats in the U.S. Senate, giving them 54 total in the chamber. In the House, Republicans expanded their majority to 246 members, their largest caucus in the chamber since the Truman administration. The party lost one vote when Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges.

In contrast to McConnell, Durbin offered a more distinct vision for the 114th Congress, wishing the Republican majority the best and recalling the tenure of another senator from his state of Illinois, Sen. Everett Dirksen, a moderate Republican who served as minority leader in the 1960s.

“He famously said, and I quote, ‘I am a man of fixed and unbending principle, the first of which is to be flexible at all times,’ end of quote,” Durbin said. “That may sound comical, even contradictory, but Sen. Dirksen’s ability to be flexible in tactics affirm what principles helped produce historic legislation, such as the Civil Rights of 1964, one of the greatest achievements in our nation’s history.”

Drawing on the example of Dirksen, Durbin made a call for working together in the spirit of compromise on behalf of the country.

“The American people need for us to work together to solve problems and create opportunities, and for their sakes, let’s all try to remember that what we are about is honorable compromise,” Durbin said. “The Constitution of the United States and the Senate itself are the results of just such a compromise.”

Presiding over the chamber was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who that day was elected as Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party.

Moments before the speeches, Vice President Joseph Biden, in his capacity as president of the Senate, joined for the swearing in the 33 newly elected or re-elected senators in groups of four. Those senators then signed the Oath Book, which contains the names of all U.S. senators.

Ian Sams, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, said the change in leadership within the Senate likely means an end to progress on LGBT bills.

“Under a Democratic majority, the U.S. Senate made historic gains for LGBT Americans — from repealing ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ to showing record support for marriage equality to passing ENDA, an LGBT hate crimes prevention bill and HIV/AIDS care legislation,” Sams said. “We hope that the new Republican majority will continue this progress, but if the House Republican majority of the past few years is any indicator, we won’t hold our breath.”

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the change of control in the Senate represents the loss of “one of the greatest roadblocks to legislative progress” with the departure of Reid as majority leader.

“I expect we’re going to see a lot of vetoes now that Reid can no longer run defense for the president and refuse to put the bi-partisan legislation passed by the House on the Senate floor,” Angelo said.

The Human Rights Campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment on Tuesday about the implications of the change in power in the U.S. Senate.

Any spirit of moving things forward in an expedited manner in the Senate was diminished as soon as the initial speeches ended when Durbin objected to proceeding with McConnell convening a Senate panel on Wednesday under special rules with the goal of approving the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“Nobody’s rights would be in any way impaired by going forward a day early,” McConnell responded. “We’re going to pass the committee resolutions tomorrow. We all know that one of the things the Senate is best at is not doing much. I hope we can work this out so we can get started.”

Just moments later, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced during his routine briefing that President Obama would veto the proposed measure on Keystone XL if it reached his desk, citing the “well-established process” underway at the State Department evaluating whether to construct the pipeline.

In terms of LGBT issues, it remains to be seen what impact GOP control will have on a planned comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination bill covering the areas of employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, education and federal programs. On the same day the new Congress convened, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would ensure same-sex couples would be eligible for the federal benefits of marriage regardless of whether or not their state of residence recognizes their union.

But an impasse could be a boon to LGBT people if social conservatives move forward with anti-gay bills or federal “religious liberty” legislation to refuse services to same-sex couples amid continued wins for marriage equality.

For Angelo, the divided government and new Republican majorities represent a challenge and opportunity for the LGBT movement to broaden its messaging.

“From an LGBT perspective, advocates are going to be forced to think like conservatives if legislation like ENDA or similar LGBT civil rights legislation is going to grow in co-sponsorships,” Angelo said. “Liberal messaging and lobbying from the left or even center-left simply won’t work. For Log Cabin Republicans, this means we have a tremendous opportunity to not just be a part of the fight for LGBT equality in the new Congress, but to lead it.”

In the lower chamber of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a call to work together in a bipartisan fashion before taking the oath of office to represent Ohio’s 8th congressional district in the U.S. House.

“We’ll begin our work on this common ground, taking up measures to develop more North American energy; restore the hours of middle-class workers; and help small businesses hire more of our veterans,” Boehner said. “Then we’ll invite the president to support and sign these bipartisan initiatives into law.”

Despite plans from a handful of conservative Republicans to oust Boehner as speaker, he was re-elected as presiding officer by 216 votes, although 25 members of his caucus dissented and voted for other lawmakers, such as anti-gay Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser for the pro-LGBT Republican group known as the American Unity Fund, said “a thoughtful and respectful bipartisan strategy will be more important” with Boehner and McConnell running the show.

“With Republicans in control of both chambers, it will be critical for Republicans to play a leadership role in advancing pro-freedom legislative priorities — and they are poised to do so after every single pro-marriage and pro-ENDA Republican legislator running for reelection won on Election Night,” Cook-McCormac said. “With our allies, American Unity Fund will continue to lead the fight to build more Republican support for LGBT freedom.”

 

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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