Out with old, in with the new Congress

9:15 AM, Jan 3, 2013   |    comments
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(CBSNews.com) - "Good riddance" is what some might say as the 112th Congress officially comes to a close. After bitter battles over the so-called "fiscal cliff," the debt ceiling and nearly every piece of legislation that came before it, it has been labeled as the least productive, most dysfunctional and least compromising in recent history. Whether those descriptions, which are difficult to quantify, are true are not, one thing is factual - it ends today as the 113th Congress is sworn in today.

As the New Year brings with it new opportunity and a chance to start over, the 113th Congress is viewed in much the same way. With 84 new members of the House and 13 new Senators, fresh voices always bring a sense of excitement. While rarely freshman invoke a great deal of change in Congress with their lowly status and congressional learning curve, it might be more difficult this year as the newly-elected members are joining weary, battle-bruised members who worked until the last minute of the Congress fighting over taxes and spending.

The new members, however, will be forced to get right to work. On Friday, the House will vote on a small sliver of federal aid for Sandy victims. And soon the fight over the remainder of the so-called "fiscal cliff" items that had been put on hold, including the debt ceiling and automatic spending cuts, as well as funding bills to finish the second half of this fiscal year, will resume.

While they might not severely influence the depths of leadership, the new Congress is expected to bring new perspective, as it will be the most diverse in history. For the first time in the House, white males will be the minority in the Democratic Party. Some of those new members are receiving a lot of attention, including Tulsi Gabbard. The Hawaii Democrat comes from a small state but many say she will come with a big punch. The 31-year-old Gabbard is the first Hindu ever elected to Congress and is one of the first female combat veterans, having served a year in Iraq with the Hawaii National Guard and a second tour in Kuwait.

Gabbard will join fellow combat veteran and triple amputee Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. While domestic policy is sure to dominate Capitol Hill in 2013, Duckworth, an opponent of the Iraq War and a supporter of the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, is likely to be a strong voice in foreign policy, especially since she will sit on the Armed Services Committee.

Democrats also add to the largest number of Hispanics - 30 - including incoming congressman Raul Ruiz of California. His rags-to-riches story has caught the attention of people outside his southeast California district. He is the son of immigrant farm workers in the Coachella Valley outside Los Angeles who was unable to afford college. He asked local businesses to contribute to his college fund with the promise to return as a doctor. He returned from Harvard nearly two decades later as an ER doctor with a total of three degrees from the prestigious university.

Also breaking barriers is Kyrsten Sinema, who won a newly created seat encompassing parts of Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. Sinema will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress. She grew up poor and spent parts of her childhood homeless. With her liberal politics and background in social work, she promises to help financially struggling Americans.

Rick Nolan, D-Minn., is another new member of the 113th Congress who comes both as a freshman and veteran. He returns to Washington after a 31-year absence. This old-timer told CBSNews.com in November that while he still believes his liberal politics, he is much more realistic this time around. He said his first piece of legislative business is to introduce legislation to take some of the corporate money out campaigns. "The first thing we have to do is change the way we do our politics," he said. 

While the Democrats boast the most diverse caucus in history, the House is operating in an interesting dichotomy. The House Republican conference continues to be dominated by white men. In the new Congress, all but one of the 21 committees are chaired by white men. For Republicans, women and minorities did not fare well in the latest elections. Of the 35 newly-elected Republicans to the House, only four are women.

House Republicans lost some of its diversity with Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who's leaving the House after being appointed to replace retiring Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. But the House's loss is the Senate's gain. Scott will be the first black senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction and the first black Republican senator since 1979. He will be a solidly conservative voice who's well-liked by the tea party, but it is unclear if he will be an outlier, like DeMint who often bucked Senate Republican leadership, or if he will work within the confines of the Republican leadership's agenda. 

The Senate is adding another tea party-inspired voice to its ranks, as well as another minority. Incoming Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., is solidly conservative but is likely to add a critical voice to the Republican Party trying to figure out how to reach out to minority, including Hispanic, voters. "I think the values in the Hispanic community are fundamentally conservative," he said on "CBS This Morning" shortly after being elected in November. "But you've got to have candidates that connect with that community in a real and genuine way and communicate that the values between the candidate and the community are one and the same." 

Like in the House, Democrats in the Senate are realizing several firsts. Incoming senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin will be first openly gay member of the Senate. Her liberal record as a member of the House will be represented in the Senate and a likely vote for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's agenda.

Meantime, Hawaii is expected to lose a lot of clout in the Senate. Daniel Akaka retired and Daniel Inouye died last month; between them they had 72 years of combined Senate experience. The state's two new senators give the Aloha State little leverage as freshman. Both newcomers, however, are receiving national attention. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, was quickly appointed after the death of Inouye. And newly-elected Democrat, Mazie Hirono, replaces Akaka. Hirono breaks several barriers: She is the first Asian-American woman, the first Buddhist and the first immigrant from Japan to serve in the Senate. She was born in Fukushima, Japan but moved to Hawaii as a child. She served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in November.

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