WASHINGTON — Get ready for some slam-bang action from the new Republican-led House of Representatives after the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday: It's going to read the entire Constitution aloud, try to repeal the new health care law and cut federal spending dramatically.
But despite what's likely to be a January full of big talk, big votes and big ideas, the most important policy decisions are unlikely for several weeks and months, and then only after some titanic power struggles.
While House Republicans will have a 242-to-193 majority, the biggest GOP margin since the first Truman administration, any legislation must be approved by the Democratic-dominated Senate and signed by President Barack Obama.
As a result, "what you're going to see at first is a lot of fire and brimstone, and votes on symbolically important legislation," veteran budget analyst Stan Collender said.
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House Republicans are dominated by 85 freshmen, most loyal to the conservative grass-roots tea party movement. While loosely organized, movement backers want a more limited form of government.
"YOURS are the voices that will resonate through the 112th Congress in 2011," says an Internet message from the Tea Party Patriots group. "On January 5, the new Congress will be sworn in to uphold the Constitution. We must make sure they do it. We must keep a close and careful eye on everything they do, or don't do."
Michael Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, thinks that tea party strength in the House will be tested within the first 90 to 120 days, particularly on budget matters and on the health care law.
"The first 90-120 days you're going to have two potentially gigantic arguments on the size and scope of government," Franc said. "If you think about it chronologically — how the year will unfold — most of the action will be front-loaded. Among the freshmen, the tea party spirit will be fully imbued in January-February-March-April more than any other time in their congressional careers."
In the Senate, Democrats will have a 53-to-47 majority, down five seats from last month but still enough to give the party a huge say in legislation.
Ultimately, analysts and lawmakers expect some spring/summer compromise on the day's biggest issues. But as the new Congress begins, they're also watching five key developments to see how they play in America's heartland:
- Reading of the Constitution. A major tenet of tea party thought is that lawmakers have been dismissive of the Constitution's intent, as they've expanded the reach of government too far.
The House GOP's "Pledge to America" promises that no one can introduce legislation without a statement "citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution" to enact it.
To drive the point home, lawmakers plan to read the Constitution aloud on the House floor Thursday.
"One of the resounding themes I have heard from my constituents is that Congress should adhere to the Constitution and the finite list of powers it granted to the federal government," said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., who's leading the effort,
Michael Munger, a professor of political science at Duke University, had a different take: "This is to make the tea party people happy. It's like a religious ceremony," he said.
The House decided late Monday that it would vote on the repeal on Jan. 12.
"Obama care failed to lower costs as the president promised that it would and does not allow people to keep the care they currently have if they like it. That is why the House will repeal it next week," Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday.
No one expects an attempt at repeal to succeed, since 60 votes are needed to overcome a Senate filibuster and two-thirds majorities of members of Congress present in both chambers would be required to override an Obama veto.
But the House debate and vote could provide important clues about how Republicans would replace the current system.
"How would they subsidize lower-income people? And how do they provide incentives for healthy people to get coverage?" asked Paul Ginsburg, the president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, an independent research group.
They're expected to make recommendations on budget-cutting rules Tuesday, and the full House is likely to vote Wednesday. Among the changes: Any new mandatory spending would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere. Tax increases wouldn't be permitted.
The first showdown is imminent: Government spending for the current fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30, expires in early March.
Critics, though, find that there's no agreed-on list of exactly what Republicans want to cut. Asked about specifics, Speaker-designate John Boehner of Ohio said, "We'll start first by cutting our own budget." But after that he was vague, saying, "The House will certainly work its will when it comes to how we're going to cut spending."
The idea of authorizing more debt is anathema to many conservatives.
Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, thought that congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House could forge a deal on raising the limit, something that some tea party-backed lawmakers have spoken against.
"There are some tea party members who would welcome a government shutdown, but most wouldn't," he said.
Senate Democrats intend to propose making it easier to formally consider legislation. Senators also are seeking an elimination of so-called secret holds, which allow them to anonymously block the consideration of presidents' nominees for Cabinet, judicial, diplomatic and other posts.
The filibuster once was used rarely.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats have made their displeasure known about the Senate Republican use of the filibuster, but some Senate Democrats who are creatures of the institution might not go along.
"My sense is all the Republicans would vote against it, and some of the senior Democrats — the older ones like Senator Daniel Inouye — remember when they were the minority party" and would vote against it, said Sabato, of the University of Virginia.
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