The Democrats' much narrower majority (53-47) will make it harder for Majority Leader Harry Reid to maneuver and keep his party united at the same time. A number of endangered Democrats who face tough re-election prospects in 2012 may find it the better part of valor to back budget cuts rather than alienate an angry electorate in their states. In the past two years, Reid needed just a couple of GOP defections on cloture votes to make the administration's legislation the pending business. Now he needs at least seven to move his party's agenda to a majority vote.
That opens up vast opportunities for Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a master of Senate rules and a cunning legislative strategist, who pulled off last month's compromise deal to extend the Bush tax cuts and then killed the Democrats' $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill that Obama desperately wanted.
A simple, temporary continuing resolution to fund the government until March 4 at last year's spending levels was passed in its place, minus billions in waste-ridden pork.
Republican strategists say passage of the House budget-cutting bill, or something close to it, may be the negotiating price McConnell extracts from the Democrats and the White House for lifting the debt ceiling and extending the containing resolution through the end of this fiscal year.
At the start of this Congress, Boehner and McConnell have the upper hand and the political wind at their backs. Democrats have lost the House, much of the Senate, and most of the independents. Obama is losing some of his senior advisers in the midst of a White House staff shakeup at a time when the West Wing can ill afford a learning curve.
The Democrats' dispirited liberal-activist wing is divided and angry over Obama's efforts to compromise with Republicans, particularly the tax cut extension deal with McConnell. The president's remaining agenda is at worst, dead, or at best, stalled until after 2012.
The Republicans' job now is to deliver on their campaign promises in a divided Congress with a Democratic president wielding his veto pen to keep the GOP juggernaut at bay.
But Republicans are championing the popular issues of the day at a time when Americans think the Democrats have overreached, that government has gotten too big, spending is out of control and the nation's treasury is dangerously veering toward bankruptcy.
The ball is in the Democrats' court.