The U.S. Capitol at sunrise on Monday, before President Obama's second inauguration. While the president raised big issues in his inaugural address — climate change, gay rights, immigration, the shooting of schoolchildren — none of them appear to top the agenda of Congress, which returned to work Tuesday.
The Senate picked up Tuesday exactly where it left off nearly three weeks ago. By a twist of the rules, the Senate chamber remains in its first legislative day of the 113th Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he's kept things at the starting point so that he and his fellow Democrats have the option of changing the rules on the filibuster by a simple majority vote.
"The Senate will take action to make this institution that we all love, the United States Senate, work more effectively," Reid said Tuesday. "We'll consider changes to the Senate rules."
Reid said he hoped to reach agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the next day or so on modifying the filibuster rules to make things work more smoothly. But if there's no agreement, Reid said he's ready to use what Republicans are calling the nuclear option — changing the rules with 51 votes instead of the usual 67 votes.
Reid said the Senate's first order of business of President Obama's second term, aside from the filibuster maneuvering, would be to give final passage to a $60 billion disaster relief package for the victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the House also came back in session Tuesday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, gaveled in the session, just days after he and his fellow Republicans decided to raise the debt ceiling enough to keep the Treasury meeting its obligations until May 19.
But as Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., noted, there would be a condition attached to such a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. "That this House and our counterparts in the United States Senate, actually pass a budget for the American people. If we can't do that, then we, as members of Congress, don't deserve to be paid. No budget, no pay."
Senate Republicans applauded their House colleagues' initiative.
"I want to congratulate the House for directing people's attention to the failure of the Senate under leader Reid to bring a budget to the floor, and I think the appropriate sanction is no budget, no pay," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate's No. 2 Republican. "That's just me talking, but I believe that sends a good message."
Reid emphasized the positive when asked about the House bill raising the debt ceiling, which was to be voted on Wednesday.
"I'm happy they sent us a debt ceiling with not entitlement cuts and dollar-for-dollar [cuts as offsets], so that's a big step in the right direction," Reid said.
The White House issued a statement Tuesday saying it will not oppose the short-term raising of the debt ceiling proposed by House Republicans.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president will not negotiate with Congress over the debt ceiling, either in the short term or the long term.
"The president takes some of the statements by Republican leaders and important and prominent Republicans about the absolute folly of pursuing a strategy that ties raising the debt ceiling to demands on spending cuts," said Carney. "We're not going to engage in it any more in three months than we were going to engage in it now."
Some Democrats say they're fine with having their pay docked if there's no budget. But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says House Republicans are going too far.
"I think that's ridiculous because their premise is that we haven't passed a budget, but we did, as you know, in the Budget Control Act," said Harkin. "We passed, as Senator Conrad can tell you, we are operating under limits right now. It may not be the, quote, budget, but it is a Budget Control Act and which we passed."
It may all come down to a fight over what exactly constitutes a budget in Congress.