MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
An all-Republican Congress is officially in session for the first time since President Obama took office. Both chambers are eager to push an agenda that Obama and congressional Democrats have largely been able to block until now - a symbol of which is the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But today was mainly about ceremony, and joining us from the U.S. Capitol to talk about that are NPR's Ailsa Chang and Juana Summers. Welcome to you both
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Thank you.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good afternoon,
BLOCK: And, Ailsa, let's start with you on the Senate side and let's start with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. It was a big day for him. He achieved something that he has dreamed of for a long time - becoming the majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
CHANG: That's right. This is a man who has never wanted to be president. His wife says so - former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. I bumped into her this afternoon while families were mingling around the hallways, taking pictures, and I asked her why has Senate majority leader always been the be all, end all for McConnell, even after more than three decades in public life? And she said her husband is just a creature of the Senate. And that some people's personalities are just more well-suited to lawmaking than to the executive branch. McConnell's closest friends have said the same thing to me, that he's never been the gregarious, natural campaigner. He is most comfortable as a tactician.
BLOCK: Well, now that he is majority leader, Senator McConnell is going to see to it that a key part of the Republican agenda, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which we mentioned, passes Congress. And as we've been reporting elsewhere in the program, the partisanship over this issue hasn't gone away. And passing Congress does not mean that that will go any further.
CHANG: That is absolutely correct. Again, the White House just said today that President Obama will veto that bill if it arrives on his desk, so this new Congress starts with a tone of confrontation - surprise, surprise. Even today, during the very first session of the Senate, Democrats immediately objected to the Senate Energy Committee convening tomorrow to hold a hearing on Keystone, even though that won't do anything to slow down a floor vote on the pipeline. McConnell pushed back with these remarks.
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U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL: 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. Everyone knows the first measure that's going to be up is going to come out of the energy committee.
CHANG: Of course, regardless of when Keystone passes, the bill is going to die on the president's desk. So the question would then be how will Republicans choose to respond?
BLOCK: Juana Summers, let's turn to you on the House side. Today, House Speaker John Boehner held onto his gavel. He has faced rebellion in his ranks over the past two years among his more conservative members of his caucus. But he did cruise to an easy re-election today as speaker of the house. What happened?
SUMMERS: He did, but, of course, that did not happen without a little bit of drama of its own. Twenty-four members of Boehner's own party voted against him, with one member voting present. That was not enough to force the vote to a second ballot, but it's definitely something that stings. This was not an easy vote for Boehner and his aides never really expected that, but for all this talk about a conservative revolt, there was not whole lot of unity. The largest share of defectors - that's 12 lawmakers - voted for Congressman Daniel Webster, of Florida - three voted for Louie Gohmert, congressman of Texas. Ted Yoho, of Florida, and Jim Jordan each received two votes. This is something that actually benefits Boehner. While conservative hardliners in his party might not like him so much or think that he's in their corner, no one running against him was actually a realistic alternative for the overwhelming majority of these Republican lawmakers.
BLOCK: Well, John Boehner will enjoy the largest GOP majority in the House in decades. Does that make his job any easier in this coming Congress than it has been in the past?
SUMMERS: From where I sit, it makes Boehner's job both a little bit easier and a little harder. Simply having more members in the caucus means even more diverse viewpoints and ideas to consider as he and Republicans in the Senate are trying to make good on this promise of making Congress function like a real, well-oiled machine again. House Republicans today look really different than in 2011. That's when Boehner was almost constantly at odds with these 80 rabble-rousing members that made up the freshmen class, many of whom had absolutely no legislative experience. One of the things that does make Boehner's job easier now is he took a role in seeking out new members for a more compromise oriented and tilted more toward the center.
BLOCK: NPR's Juana Summers and NPR's Ailsa Chang on Capitol Hill. Thanks to you both.
SUMMERS: You're welcome.
CHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.