Jan. 16, 2011 -- It's time for Congress to get back to its new normal -- where everything has changed, except that it hasn't really.
Lawmakers this week return to Washington for their first substantive actions in the aftermath of last weekend's Tucson shooting. The tragedy had particular resonance on Capitol Hill, with the knowledge that one of their own was targeted for who she is.
For all the debate over the tone of political rhetoric prompted by the shooting, don't look for any significant changes to the agenda being pursued by newly empowered Republicans.
Yet something has changed in the minds of Washington lawmakers -- and it's likely to color the way they talk about their actions, if not the actions themselves, in the weeks and months to come.
Words matter now in the debate over policy. In an era where it's become commonplace to throw around terms and accusations, in a sound-bite race to the bottom, the public and the press will be paying attention like never before to inflammatory statements.
The episode is an early leadership challenge to House Speaker John Boehner, who's had to cope with the fallout of a terrible crisis before he's had the chance to establish any kind of legislative record. He took over the speakership, of course, on the power of the tea party movement -- where anger drove votes and delivered a huge boost to Republicans just two months ago.
GOP leaders recognize that there will now be increased scrutiny on their words. But -- still eager to deliver for an energized party base -- they're determined not to let that influence their actions.
That means the effort to repeal President Obama's health care law will proceed this week instead of last. The bill's sharp, if clunky, title -- "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" -- will remain intact.
From Boehner's perspective, it's important to establish his leadership -- both with his own members and with Democrats -- before the president grabs the spotlight again, with the State of the Union address scheduled for Jan. 25.
Before Tucson, some early actions by the new GOP House leadership raised concerns about the party's commitment to its principles.
The health care repeal was fast-tracked without providing procedural rights Republicans promised Democrats. When Republicans didn't agree with the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the bill's impact on the deficit, they chose to ignore it.
The tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., has already made those early headlines fade. Boehner and his leadership team in effect have a second chance to make a first impression on the American public.
Boehner's initial actions after the shooting -- in press statements, scheduling matters, and coordinating everything from security to House floor tributes -- drew wide praise from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
And those very sides could blur in one symbolic setting: A quirky proposal by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., for Democrats and Republicans to intermingle in choosing seats at the State of the Union has drawn enough scattered support from prominent members of both parties to ensure that that event will look different to the public.
But now, for Republican leaders, comes the hard part of working toward governing. It makes for a delicate moment for Boehner and his colleagues, who must now recognize that the moment demands a slightly different brand of leadership than they might have pursued before last weekend.