The new 112th Congress, politically reshaped and redirected by the voters, reopened for business this week to tackle some old and vexing issues. Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who rose from poverty to become the Speaker of the House, is setting about to deliver on his party's campaign pledge to curb out-of-control spending, accelerate job creation, boost economic growth and repeal Obamacare.
But Boehner, who has kept a low profile since Republicans won a net gain of 63 seats to take control of the House, is under no illusions about the power that has been thrust upon him and his party. He has said since election night that if they do not deliver on their promises, the voters can and will fire them in the next election.
Among the GOP's biggest promises, cutting spending is their most daunting challenge. Their goal is to roll back spending to 2008 levels, beginning with the remaining months of this fiscal year, which could see $60 billion in additional budget cuts. Democrats say it can't be done. Republican leaders say just watch us, starting with Congress's own multi-billion dollar budget. This week Republicans began by cutting funding for 435 legislative offices and all of the House committees by 5 percent, reserving the deepest cut -- 9 percent -- for the once-sacrosanct Appropriations Committee.
"Congress must begin immediately to reduce spending, and these budget cuts should start here and now -- in our own offices ... I have directed my own committee budget to be cut by nearly double the amount of reductions proposed for other House offices," said Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the new chairman of the panel.
Rogers' committee, whose members dished out $1.1 trillion in federal funds in 2010, also lost its most prized prerogative -- the power to unilaterally slip earmarked pork-barrel spending items into the 12 major funding bills that bankroll the federal government. "While those line items accounted for just 1 percent of discretionary federal spending, this surrender of power represents the end of an era in which the committee provided more than $10 billion for projects each year," writes Washington Post reporter Paul Kane.
The political makeup of the committee's once-undisputed barons was also changed by Boehner and his leadership. Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, a fierce critic of earmarks and spending levels, and three GOP freshmen budget hawks were added to the panel that saw its membership cut by nearly 20 percent. House Republican insiders say the GOP's government spending cuts will be wide and deep. But they are sure to run into a buzzsaw of opposition from Senate Democrats -- though maybe a little less than some are forecasting.
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.