The Republican party takes charge of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, poised for head-to-head clashes with President Barack Obama as it promises an era of smaller government and less spending.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi turns over her speaker's gavel to Rep. John Boehner, who plans to quickly stage a vote to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, fulfilling promises the party made in the November election that put it back in control of the lower house. While the measure was likely to pass by a sizable margin, Democrats still control the Senate, where the repeal was expected to die.
Renewed action on health care — passage in the House, quiet death in the Senate — could serve as a template for divided-government legislative gridlock in the final two years of Obama's term.
But with the country still mired in a wobbly economic recovery and battered by near 10 percent unemployment, Obama said he's counting on Republicans' hot ideological positions to cool as the congressional session moves forward.
"I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we are creating a competitive economy for the 21st century," Obama said on Tuesday on his return flight from a two-week holiday in Hawaii.
He said the two sides can build on the final session of the previous Congress late last year, when they agreed on a compromise to prevent income taxes from rising, extend unemployment benefits and enact a Social Security tax cut that took effect on Saturday.
Perhaps coincidentally, Obama's job approval rating has climbed to 50 percent according to the latest Gallup Poll tracking survey. The president's approval number had been in the mid-40s for most of the last six months. He was last at the 50-percent mark in late spring.
Many politicians believe Americans are hungering for a more bipartisan political climate.
For her part, however, Pelosi was still stoking the partisan fires as she prepared to vacate the speaker's office after six years. The first woman to hold the speaker's job said Democrats would be willing to work with Republicans when they present "positive solutions." But in nearly the same breath she called Republicans hypocrites for moving against health care.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the massive law will slightly reduce the federal deficit over the next 10 years, a result that is in line with Republican calls for less spending. Repealing the law would increase the deficit, Pelosi said.
Pelosi said House Democrats will focus on creating jobs, improving the economy and shrinking the federal budget deficit. The deficit hit $1.3 trillion in the budget year that ended in September — a year in which Democrats controlled Congress and the White House.
For the Republicans, incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he hoped Obama would "reevaluate his position on regulations."
The party contends the economy is over-regulated by the government, with Obama's health care legislation a key example.
Cantor's comments signaled the change in political realities since the 2008 election which gave Democrats control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
Instead of opposing Obama's every proposal, as they did in 2009 and 2010, Republicans now must compromise with him if they are to show results in their drive to cut spending.
House Republicans also pledge to hold tough investigations and hearings on the president's programs and policies, ending the free pass that Democratic committee chairmen gave the Obama administration the past two years.
Republicans insist they will bring key administration officials to Congress to explain how they are spending the public's money. The friendly tone of inquiry from Democratic chairmen will be replaced by Republicans demanding answers to these questions: What's the purpose of this program? Is this the best use of the taxpayers' money?
The chief Republican investigator, Rep. Darrell Issa, is eager to get started, and he's not alone. Issa, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been especially critical of what he calls waste in Obama's economic stimulus spending.
More broadly, conservative Republicans, including many newly elected members of Congress backed by the conservative tea party movement, want spending cuts imposed immediately. A first test comes when lawmakers have to pass a massive spending bill to keep the government running.
Another critical juncture could come as early as March, when Congress votes on whether to raise the federal debt ceiling. Some Republican lawmakers have said they will not vote to raise the debt limit unless there is a plan in place for dealing with long-term obligations, including Social Security, and for returning to 2008 spending levels. Social Security is the federal pension system for older Americans. It, along with the Medicare insurance program for the elderly and defense spending, account for a lion's share of the federal budget.
As Congress geared up, Obama was preparing a shake-up of his senior leadership, looking toward the 2012 election campaign.
Obama was considering naming former Commerce Secretary William Daley to a top White House job, possibly chief of staff, a person familiar with the matter said. Daley, an executive at JPMorgan Chase, would bring extensive private sector experience to a White House seeking to counter the notion that the president is antibusiness. The person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama also was expected to have a new chief economic adviser, a new senior political counselor, and two new deputy chiefs of staff in place before too many days pass in 2011.