WASHINGTON — Fresh from church service and accompanied by his wife and three children, Joe Heck walked into his yet-to-be-decorated office suite on Wednesday morning, began greeting well-wishers and awaited the noon opening of the U.S. House where he would become Nevada’s newest member.
Across the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Harry Reid similarly prepared for the first day of the Senate session. As majority leader he would be responsible for managing the chamber as well as hosting family members and friends there to see him take the oath of office for the fifth time.
Last November, Democrat Reid and Republican Heck prevailed in two of the nation’s more closely watched elections. On Wednesday, each was sworn in as members of the 112th Congress where Republicans will run the House, and Democrats will control the Senate with a reduced 53-47 majority.
As Heck began his freshman year, veteran Nevada lawmakers Shelley Berkley and Dean Heller also started fresh terms after winning re-election. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who did not face voters in the fall, remained in the state where a spokeswoman said he was attending constituent meetings this week.
"This never gets old," Heller said of the partylike atmosphere that marks opening day. Heller, a Republican, entered his third term in Congress and his first ever as a member of the party in control, even counting back to when he was in the Nevada Assembly from 1990 to 1994.
Berkley, a Democrat, began her seventh term in meetings with renewable energy and Internet gaming lobbyists. She said the headiness of the new Congress was tempered by economic problems that require lawmakers to find solutions.
"You are very excited on the one hand, but on the other hand it is very sobering because you know you’ve got work to do," she said. "And you’d better do a good job."
In the House chamber, Heck took a seat on the Republican side and made space for his 13-year old son, Joey. Wife Lisa and older daughters Monica and Chelsea looked on from the gallery as Heck cast his vote for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, to become House speaker. Several minutes later they cheered as Heck and new colleagues were sworn into office en masse.
In the Senate, Reid introduced a surprise guest. Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor and senator, took part in Reid’s induction, accompanying him down the Senate aisle and standing behind him in the well as Reid raised his right hand and swore once again to "support and defend the Constitution."
Reid’s wife Landra, son Josh, daughter and son-in-law Lana and Steve Barringer and their three children watched from the front row of the gallery. Looking on a few rows up was Janice Shelton, Reid’s longtime personal assistant
Laxalt, 88, was an influential Republican who enjoyed a close relationship with Ronald Reagan when Reagan was governor of neighboring California and later president. Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987 and became a business consultant and a sought-after GOP elder.
By Senate custom, senators taking the oath of office usually are escorted by their counterparts, making Ensign’s absence noticeable.
"Senator Ensign decided to remain in Nevada this week to meet with and speak to constituents instead of flying back to D.C. because there are no votes scheduled," his spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said. "Senator Reid was aware of this and called Senator Ensign to ask if it was OK for former Senator Laxalt to escort him to the swearing in."
Reid aide Zac Petkanas said Reid invited Laxalt "months ago." While the close relationship between Reid and Ensign is said to have frayed after Ensign campaigned for Reid challenger Sharron Angle in the fall, Petkanas denied there were signs of strain.
If Reid fills a full term through 2016, he will have represented Nevada in the Senate for 30 years. That would tie him for longevity with John Percival Jones, a Northern Nevada silver baron who served from 1873 to 1903, an era when senators were not elected but were appointed by the state Legislature.
Following opening ceremonies, the Senate began debating whether to change its rules to make it more difficult to filibuster bills. Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky negotiated a delay in voting until later this month, but Reid said change was needed because of "abuses" by Republicans.
"Rather than offer amendments to improve legislation or compromise for the greater good, as members of this body have done for generations, the current minority has offered amendments simply to waste time, delay us from proceeding to a bill, or to score political points," Reid said. "The American people love government but they don’t like too much politics in government."
But McConnell said Democrats were trying to strong-arm changes that would dilute the standing of the minority party by shutting down debate. He said Democrats were trying to strengthen their hand even as their majority was trimmed to a 53-47 margin in the fall elections.
"Instead of changing their behavior in response to the last election, they want to change the rules," McConnell said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.