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The new Republican-led House of Representatives that will convene on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was elected vowing to repeal the Obama administration’s landmark healthcare law and to radically cut government spending.
As the memory of November’s sweeping congressional victory by Republicans begins to dim and lawmakers face the task of governing, the biggest question now is how far the new majority party in the House of Representatives will go to fulfil its mandate.
Party leaders have vowed to take an early vote to eradicate the healthcare bill in its entirety – a move that is expected to be blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate – and are trying to prove their conservative bona fides by abstaining from any lavish galas upon their arrival in Washington.
The symbolic gestures will not likely go far enough to satisfy the ultra-conservative Tea Party activists that helped usher in the new Republican majority. Indeed, many see the burst of bipartisan activity before the Christmas holiday that saw President Barack Obama and Republicans agreeing to a huge tax and spending package as a moment of calm before the storm.
Many in Washington believe that the first real battle will be the vote to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, which is likely to be held in March. Some Republicans want to use a must-pass vote on the debt ceiling to force Democrats to agree to aggressive spending cuts.
After the election, some newly elected members of Congress said they needed to see Congress tackle big government programmes such as Social Security before agreeing to any increase.
Dick Armey, the former Republican leader in the House and a Tea Party activist who runs the political action group FreedomWorks, told the Financial Times he did not believe the issue had to be contentious as long as lawmakers introduced a new federal budget before the debt ceiling issue arose that showed a “clear commitment to correcting ongoing spending patters”.
“If they, in fact, accept the challenge and show a whole new direction in spending, then they can get everyone to step up to make that very unhappy vote,” Mr Armey said.
A “good” budget would involve cutting “hairbrained” government programmes such as Americorps, a Clinton-era federal programme that promotes national service, and a move to make Medicare, the federally sponsored health insurance programme for the elderly, voluntary.
“They are willing to say: ‘we understand you have spent yourselves into this dilemma, we just want to make sure that, if we give you the vote now to get you out of this crisis, things will change’. I don’t think that is too much to ask.”
Austan Goolsbee, the White House economic adviser, warned this weekend that a failure by Congress to raise the ceiling would have a “catastrophic” impact on the US economy, saying it “would be a worse financial economic crisis than anything we saw in 2008”.
“I don’t see why anybody’s talking about playing chicken with the debt ceiling. If we get to the point where you’ve damaged the full faith and credit of the US, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity,” Mr Goolsbee said on ABC News.
But there are signs, too, that the arrival of the new majority might not produce the kind of government shutdown gridlock that occurred in the 1990s.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, said he had been struck by the fact that the Tea Party had not – so far – had the disruptive effect many in the Beltway anticipated. He points to the exclusive selection of veteran Republicans to head the most important House committees, who won party elections without a rebellion from the right.
“This is hardly a revolutionary group that we’ve put in charge of the House of Representatives,” Mr Weber says.
The fact that today’s leaders are far more experienced in the ways of Washington than Republicans were when they took control of the House following another sweeping election victory in the 1990s – the era of the “Republican revolution” – means they understand their limitations, Mr Weber says.
“Republicans have to be ready to prioritise. They aren’t going to get everything they want. They have to pick their battles carefully,” Mr Weber says.
That means focusing less on grand-scale plans to challenge the Obama administration, and more attention to targeting policies and regulations – particularly on the environment and financial reform – that are seen as disruptive.