Republicans roll up sleeves as new Congress convenes
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After their victory in November’s midterm elections, Republicans face pressure to deliver on campaign promises and to appeal to a majority of Americans before the crucial 2012 race for the White House.
The 112th Congress got to work Wednesday, with all eyes set on a Republican Party revitalised after winning back control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. Top Republican John Boehner was elected House speaker as the new Congress convened, taking over from Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
But the GOP (Republicans) must overcome numerous internal and external challenges if it is to prove to the American people that it can govern.
Over the last two years Washington’s pace was marked foremost by President Barack Obama’s ambitious reform agenda and his drive to deliver on campaign promises. It was also defined by the fierce and relentless resistance to reform displayed by the Republican minority in Congress.
The new Republican majority in the House is certain to continue to trip up Obama's plans and force his administration into uncomfortable hearings over public spending. But Democrats still hold a slender majority in the Senate, and Obama the power to veto legislation that arrives to his desk.
Both Republicans and Democrats have publicly expressed the desire to put differences aside to get the battered US economy back on its feet, but observers are sceptical that sort of compromise can occur.
“The Republicans and the Democrats both say they are willing to work with the other side,” said Stephen Ekovich, a professor of political science at the American University of Paris. But the two will only cooperate “so long as the results fall in their own direction” and if “they get credit for it in public opinion,” Ekovich added.
Hope of recovery
With the US economy still struggling, unemployment hovering around 10%, and national debt billowing, Americans are looking to both parties to tackle these problems. Given the present context, some of the issues set to take centre stage in Congress are likely to involve social spending programmes and taxation – two issues that Republicans and Democrats have considerable trouble agreeing on.
Incoming Republicans in the House promised to cut $100 billion from domestic spending in 2011, but the stated target brings with it significant political risks. “The Republican Party wants to manoeuvre in such a way as to make sure they get the credit for any economic recovery,” Ekovich explained.
The Republicans are also keen to make good on their oath to undo the law that overhauls the American healthcare system, which was approved by the narrowest of margins and amid stiff opposition from conservatives across the country. House Republicans plan to put forward a bill as early as next week to repeal the historic reform.
According to a November opinion survey by US pollster Gallup, access to healthcare was the most important health issue for Americans, ranking above the issue of cost and specific conditions such as cancer and obesity. However, as many as 10% of those polled said the government’s overreaching involvement in healthcare was their highest concern.
That move to rescind the healthcare law is widely expected to fail in the Senate, and is likely to ring out a combative tone from the onset of the new Congress. According to Ekovich, systematic opposition to Obama’s agenda paid off electorally for Republicans in November, but two more years of naysay may not sit well with voters.
Among the internal challenges facing the Republicans is integrating the Tea Party, a grass-roots movement farther to the right of the Republican Party’s core and which propelled a number of little-known and at times extravagant conservatives to the frontline of American politics.
“The Republican party has to integrate that movement without moving too far to the right, because after all, to win a presidential election you need the independents who are at the centre of the American political spectrum,” said Ekovich.
One of the major US stories of 2011 will come from the Republican brew of buoyant enthusiasm and calculated opposition: the emergence of presidential hopefuls to challenge Barack Obama in 2012. A few names have already made headlines, including that of Tea Party superstar Sarah Palin. But before a shortlist emerges Republicans in the new Congress must prove they can do more than just say no to the president.