New Congress Already Has Full Plate With Spending Cuts, Debt Ceiling

The 113th Senate formally began on Thursday, with fully one-fifth of them women, the highest percentage to date. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke a year ago, also made his return.

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DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: I'm David Welna on the Senate side of the Capitol. The 113th Congress got started here with about 10 minutes of drama. That's how long it took Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk to struggle up the 45 steps on the east side of the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

WELNA: It was Kirk's first time back since being sidelined by a stroke nearly a year ago. A crowd greeted him outside the Senate chamber.

SENATOR MARK STEVEN KIRK: Thank you. Thank you, guys. Good to see you, guys.

WELNA: Vice President Joe Biden had helped Kirk up the steps along with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. For North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, that bipartisan effort was a sign that this new Congress may actually bridge a deep partisan divide.

SENATOR JOHN HENRY HOEVEN: I think there is a growing sentiment that we have to do that. You have to be optimistic because we have to get things done.

WELNA: The Senate that may or may not get things done is unique in various ways. The 20 women who'll be part of it are the most ever to serve in the upper chamber. One of them, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly gay senator. South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, who was appointed to fill the seat Jim DeMint resigned, is the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. And Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared on the Senate floor with several newly acquired sores on his cheeks.

SENATOR HARRY REID: The marks that people see on my face, that has nothing to do with the fiscal cliff or the disagreements that Speaker Boehner and I had.

WELNA: They were instead the result of a visit to the dermatologist to have sun-damaged skin removed. But Reid did have some advice to offer Boehner: to keep allowing bipartisan bills passed by the Senate such as this week's fiscal cliff compromise to be voted on in the House.

REID: As Speaker Boehner saw on New Year's Day, when he allows every member of the House to vote - not only Republican members of the House to vote - Congress can enact bills into law.

WELNA: Reid also put colleagues on notice that any more budget deals will have to include additional revenues, as well as spending cuts.

REID: During this Congress, the 113th, Democrats will continue to stand strong for the principle of balance, and I'm hopeful and confident my Republican colleagues will do the same. Any future budget agreements must balance the need for thoughtful spending reductions with revenue from the wealthiest among us and closing wasteful tax loopholes.

WELNA: But Republican Leader Mitch McConnell wasn't buying it. Congress, he said, is through dealing with taxes.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The revenue debate is over. President Obama declared the other night that those he calls rich are now paying their fair share. So it's time to move on. The president got his revenue. Now it's time to turn squarely to the real problem, which we all know is spending.

WELNA: McConnell added that President Obama and Senate Democrats ought to start talking now about what kind of spending cuts they'll be making because Republicans won't agree to any more deals without them.

MCCONNELL: In a couple of months, the president will ask us to raise the nation's debt limit. We cannot agree to increase that borrowing limit without agreeing to reforms that lower the avalanche of spending that's creating this debt in the first place.

WELNA: In fact, the first legislation approved by the Senate is likely to be more spending. Majority Leader Reid said of the unfinished business left over from the last Congress, storm damage relief for states in the Northeast is at the top of his to-do list.

REID: The first crucial matter we'll address will be the long-overdue aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. I'm hopeful that the House will act as they said on the 15th. And when we get back here, we'll move on it very, very quickly.

WELNA: Beyond that, Reid said the Senate has to do something to make things work more smoothly than they have in recent years. There are several proposals to limit the use of the filibuster. Reid said he won't officially end this first legislative day of the Senate until something is agreed on. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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