The 113th Congress convened Thursday at noon for the first time to officially take the reins of government from its predecessors, who bear the distinction of being the least productive and popular Congress in modern American history.
Eighty-two freshman House members were among those sworn in, as were 12 new senators, though the party breakdown remains mostly unchanged. Democrats still control the Senate, 55 to 45, and Republicans still have a majority in the House of Representatives, 233 to 200 (with two vacancies). But the incoming class of lawmakers is more diverse than any before it.
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It includes the first Hindu to serve in either the House or Senate (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii) and the first Buddhist senator (Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii). But it's not quite that simple. Gabbard told The New York Times that while she identifies as a Hindu, "I am much more into spirituality than I am religious labels.” Hirono told the paper that she is a “nonpracticing Buddhist” who “considers religion a personal matter.”
The 113th Congress also includes the first openly bisexual congresswoman (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.), who is also the first member of Congress to self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. Ten other members of the 113th Congress did not specify a specific religious affiliation, the Pew Forum points out, yet Sinema is the only to describer her religion as “none.”
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Congress also swore in its first openly gay lawmaker of color (Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.), four African Americans, 10 Latinos, five Asian-Americans and two dozen women.
Women now comprise 20 percent of the Senate and nearly 18 percent of the House.
New Hampshire has become the first state to send women, and only women, to Washington for representation. It already had two female Senators, Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, but the 2012 election put women in the state’s two House seats: Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter. (Another woman, Maggie Hassan, was elected governor.)
And there are a number of rising stars to watch out for:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): The Harvard law professor beat out incumbent Scott Brown in one of the most expensive races in history. (At least $68 million went into the fierce fight, according to The Associated Press.) The architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren portrayed herself as a champion for the middle class, consumers and women and jumped into the national spotlight with a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.): This Iraq war veteran, who lost both legs after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, didn't win the first time she ran for Congress in 2006, but she beat out Tea Partier Joe Walsh in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote. Both made headlines when Walsh suggested that Duckworth boasted about her military past and therefore was not a "true hero." She told NBC Chicago that transportation is at the top of her priority list when as she heads to Washington.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): The former governor of Maine ran as an independent but will caucus with Democrats. Still, he's said that he believes he can bridge the gap between the two parties — a tall task given the deep partisanship in Washington.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): Tea Party darling Ted Cruz beat out former Democratic state Rep. Paul Sadler for the state's open Senate seat. He promised to work to limit the size and power of government and said he wants to build a wall that spans that Texas-Mexico border. He's the first Latino to represent his state in the upper chamber.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.): Sinema was homeless for a time, worked as a social worker and quickly rose through the ranks of the state legislature before hitting the national stage, according to Fronteras. She grew up Mormon but later dropped any religious affiliation. She will push for limiting foreclosures and creating jobs while in Washington.
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.): Yoho worked as a large-animal veterinarian with little political experience before jumping into the ring and defeating incumbent Cliff Stearns. In explaining why he refused to sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, Yoho told NPR that he didn't want to handcuff his legislative options. "The only pledge that I made is I said I would serve eight years, and I'm going home," he said.
Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.): Robert F. Kennedy's grandson is the latest Kennedy to be elected to Congress. He tied the knot last month and told the Boston Herald earlier this week that he's ready to take on gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook school shooting. "It's something I certainly feel strongly about," he said. Both his grandfather and great-uncle, President John F. Kennedy, were assassinated by gunmen.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah): Chris Stewart is a businessman and former Air Force pilot who has also written two New York Times bestsellers, “Seven Miracles That Saved America” and “The Miracle of Freedom.” The Mormon father of six is pals with conservative pundit Glenn Beck and a proponent of American exceptionalism, according to the National Journal. A self-described “Second Amendment guy,” Stewart told the Salt Lake Tribune that since the Newtown massacre he’s open to limited gun control, including the banning of high-capacity ammunition.
Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas): Castro’s twin brother, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, stole the spotlight as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Now Joaquín Castro has landed on NBC Latino’s list of 10 politicians to watch for in 2013. Castro is a graduate of Harvard Law School who focused on education during his five-term tenure in the Texas state legislature.