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113th Congress convenes as fiscal issues loom

WASHINGTON -- A new Congress opened for business Thursday to confront long-festering national problems -- deficits and immigration among them -- in an intensely partisan and crisis-driven era of divided government.

"The American dream is in peril," said House Speaker John Boehner, re-elected to his post despite a mini-revolt in Republican ranks.

Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans in the 113th Congress to tackle the nation's heavy burden of debt at long last. "We have to be willing -- truly willing -- to make this right."

Also on the two-year agenda is the first significant effort at an overhaul of the tax code in more than a quarter-century. Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to chop at a thicket of existing tax breaks and use the resulting revenue to reduce rates.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) were among the newcomers sworn in, raising the number of women in the Senate to a record 20. Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black Republican in the Senate in more than three decades.

On the first day of a new term, one old-timer made a stirring comeback. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) returned to the Capitol for the first time since suffering a stroke a year ago, walking slowly up the 45 steps to the Capitol with the use of a cane. "Good to see you, guys," he said.

Across the Capitol, children and grandchildren squirmed through opening formalities that ended with Boehner's re-election as speaker.

"At $16 trillion and rising, our national debt is draining free enterprise and weakening the ship of state," said the Ohio Republican, whose struggles to control his members persisted to the final weekend of the 112th Congress when "fiscal cliff" legislation finally cleared.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said "any future budget agreements must balance the need for thoughtful spending reductions with revenue from the wealthiest among us and closing wasteful tax loopholes." But Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said this week that the days of raising taxes are over.

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