Analysis: New Congress poses test for RepublicansWritten by Associated Press | | email@example.com
A new Congress opens for business Jan. 5 with the Republican Party back in control of the House of Representatives, wrestling internally to set a course between the last two years of obstructionism against President Barack Obama and the new requirement to govern.
With the U.S. economy still struggling toward recovery, unemployment stuck near 10 percent and the national debt setting a new record daily, Americans have called on both Republicans and Democrats to show the gumption to compromise and confront those problems.
The solutions will be painful, however, and — with the next presidential election just two years away — bold action may prove too politically dangerous and less likely to be taken.
Also, Democrats still control the Senate, although with a reduced majority, and Obama can kill legislation with his veto pen.
The frame of the argument in Washington has not changed. Republicans believe in smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation, saying such policies will unleash the private sector and spur economic growth. Democrats insist that it is the business of government — while promoting a robust capitalism — to ensure an adequate safety net for those left behind in the changing economy.
Thus, some of the biggest issues likely to consume the legislative calendar in the new Congress center on social programs and taxes. After a huge legislative battle, Obama and fellow Democrats managed to pass a law that overhauls the American health care system without Republican support.
Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Sunday on a television news program that repealing the health care reform is his top priority. Republicans will first try to repeal the health care law outright, and if that doesn’t work because of the president’s veto power, then try to dismantle it piece by piece, he said.
The health care reforms — that are expected to expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans who can’t afford or qualify for private insurance — bump up against two other social programs. Many Republicans want to alter Social Security and Medicare in order to cut government spending, but will face stiff opposition if they shrink federal pension and medical benefits for the elderly and disabled.
Those two entitlement programs, along with the military, make up the bulk of government spending and are, therefore, the place to find savings to cut the country’s debt. While increasing taxes could help, Republicans will never allow any boost significant enough to have a major impact on the debt. Obama and the Democrats most likely will be left the possibility of finding a compromise with the Republicans on overhauling the tax system to make it fairer but not more onerous for the wealthy.
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 of California, 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.
“The sooner the administration figures out that the enemy is the bureaucracy and the wasteful spending, not the other party, the better off we’ll be,” he said on a Sunday television news program.
Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, incoming leader of the House Appropriations Committee, said he wants top officials from all major government agencies to appear and justify spending.
In addition to health care reform, Upton said a big target for his committee will be the Environmental Protection Agency, which is writing rules to limit the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming after Obama failed to win Senate approval for climate change legislation passed by the House.
“We are not going to let this administration regulate what they’ve been unable to legislate,” Upton said, vowing to battle what he considers over-zealous government regulators.
The new Republican majority in the House is certain to put a damper on Obama’s agenda and snarl his administration in uncomfortable hearings. But Democrats still hold the critical Senate redoubt, buttressed by the president’s veto power.
Beyond all that, too, is the pressure on politicians in both parties to make progress on issues that will win them votes in 2012. The most powerful way forward is through the economy — a return to healthy growth and, most importantly, putting people back to work. There are no clear signs yet that either party has ready answers.
Steven R. Hurst is the AP international political writer.