John Boehner of Ohio took the gavel from Nancy Pelosi after being voted as the new speaker of the House, and waited for the applause reverberating around the chamber to die down.
His first words as speaker were: “It’s still just me.”
It was a fitting introduction for the second of 12 children from a middle-class family in Cincinnati. All but one of his siblings attended the speech and sat in the gallery. Boehner, who has a reputation for crying easily and often, shed a few tears as he entered the chamber, but did not break down during his remarks.
Speaking on the first day of the 112th Congress moments before new members were sworn in, he sought to strike a tone of humility in recognition of the frustration felt by many Americans at a time of high and prolonged unemployment and economic anxiety.
He made clear to the House GOP that their huge success in November, when they gained 63 seats and swept into the majority after four years of minority status, was fragile. It was a clear nod to the power of the grassroots conservative Tea Party movement, which provided the energy behind the Republican’s victory.
“The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories to just how temporary the privilege of serving here is,” he said. “Everything here is on loan from them.”
He promised that the new GOP majority will be “humble in our demeanor, steady in our principles.”
Of the 435 House members, all 241 House Republicans voted for Boehner, except for Boehner himself, who abstained. But Pelosi suffered the embarrassment of having 10 percent of the Democratic caucus vote against her, half of them for Rep. Heath Shuler, North Carolina Democrat. Pelosi received 173 votes over all.
Boehner spoke for just less than 11 minutes, and early on made mention of the nation’s looming debt of over $14 trillion. He promised that the House under his leadership would take serious steps to deal with it.
“No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions,” he said.
Although Boehner and the House GOP leadership have pledged to cut $100 billion out of this year’s budget, there have already been concessions from some Republicans that they will not be able to cut more than $50 billion.
The reach of the House will still be severely limited, since Democrats control both the Senate and the White House.
Boehner reiterated most of the broader reforms that his party have committed to for months, namely allowing legislation to be placed online for three days before a vote, making committees smaller and allowing legislation to go through a more fulsome committee process, and other measures to increase transparency.
Democrats have already begun to criticize portions of the GOP rules package, such as giving House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, the power to unilaterally set spending levels.