GOP gains House leadership, adds Senate seats. Now what?

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  Jan. 2, 2011 at 5:30 AM
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New year, new U.S. Congress, new rules, at least in the House of Representatives.

The day after Ohio Republican John Boehner takes his presumptive role as House speaker from Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the session will begin with a first: the reading of the entire U.S. Constitution.

Another rule that highlights the Constitution is a House requirement that every bill introduced include a statement by the sponsoring representative that cites the constitutional authority to enact the proposal.

These two changes are part of a laundry list of new rules Republicans will set up when they assume the House majority Wednesday, seen as a nod to the Tea Party movement that helped them take control of the lower chamber, The Washington Post reported recently.

"It appears that the Republicans have been listening," said Jeff Luecke, a Tea Party organizer in Dubuque, Iowa. "We're so far away from our founding principles that, absolutely, this is the very, very tip of the iceberg. We need to talk about and learn about the Constitution daily."

But are the Constitution-related rules symbolic or something more?

"I think it's entirely cosmetic," said Kevin Gutzman, a Western Connecticut State University history professor who says he's a conservative libertarian and sympathizes with the Tea Party movement. "This is the way the establishment handles grass-roots movements. They humor people who are not expert or not fully cognizant. And then once they've humored them and those people go away, it's right back to business as usual."

Ultimately, lawmakers themselves will determine the constitutional relevance, the Post said, opening the exercise up to broad interpretations.

Other new rules include measures designed to increase transparency in the legislative process, including the broadcast of committee hearings and mark-up sessions online, and recording committee attendance.

But while new rules will be in play in the House, the old arguments of bigger versus smaller government, how much regulation is too much regulation and how to rein in government spending remain.

Republicans, trying to flex their collective new muscle, vow to repeal the new healthcare law and do away with financial reform regulations -- which GOP leaders say demonstrate how the federal government has overstepped its bounds.

House Republicans also pledged to slash at least $100 billion in government spending in 2011.

President Obama promised to use the budget -- expected to be revealed sometime around Valentine's Day -- to take dramatic action to carve away at the deficit, and is expected to add to the spending and pay freezes he already announced. He also is expected to use ideas in a proposal from 11 of the 18 members of his bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, including cuts to defense and tax code subsidies, as well as reforms to Medicare and Social Security.

With a burgeoning deficit staring at them, a huge bipartisan majority of senators agreed on a tax-cut package that would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt. But two of the 81 senators who backed that package reached by Obama and congressional Republicans -- Mark Warner, D-Va., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., are leading an informal gathering of senators meeting periodically to discuss ways to curb the deficit, the Post said.

The senators' unifying factor -- shared by Obama's deficit commission -- is that there's no magic potion to fix the country's fiscal woes.

"The way you do it is put everything on the table," Chambliss says.

Chambliss and Warner say they plan to introduce the report as a "legislative vehicle" early this year, with the goal of developing a binding compromise.

"It is critically important to get a plan in place in the next 12 months" before the presidential election year, Chambliss said, even if actual implementation is years out.

"We do think this is the issue of our time," Warner said of digging the country out of debt.

Republicans also see repeal of "Obamacare" as their directive from the electorate.

"The American people were concerned about the government takeover of healthcare," Boehner said Nov. 3.

Voters on Nov. 2, he said, told Obama they want him to "change the course" and that they reject "the Obama-Pelosi agenda."

Boehner said Republicans want to replace the Obama "monstrosity" with "commonsense reforms" that they say would lower healthcare costs, USA Today reported.

While Obama has said he hoped he could cooperate with Republicans, he balked at GOP plans to "roll back healthcare reform." White House officials also expressed confidence healthcare reform would not be repealed by lawmakers.

House Republicans pledged to take a second look the broad financial regulatory legislation passed in 2010. Among other things, the overhaul born of the financial crisis establishes the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, creates oversight of the derivatives market and gives the government new authority to seize and wind down large, troubled financial firms.

"We're looking at it provision by provision," Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told The Washington Post.

Republicans have maintained the Wall Street reform legislation is overreaching and will stifle businesses and economic growth.

In particular, Bachus said Republicans want to revisit provisions requiring companies that use derivatives as a hedge against future risks to set aside more capital for those deals.

"Any attempt to require end users to come up with large amounts of capital ... could certainly restrict their ability to hire and create jobs," he said. "And one of our pledges to America was that we didn't want anything in (the legislation) to be a job killer."

Republicans also say it's unlikely Obama's proposal that Congress overhaul the country's immigration laws will get a hearing.

During his year-end news conference, Obama said his biggest regret about the recent lame-duck session was the defeat of the DREAM Act, a measure that offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children if they met certain conditions.

"It is heartbreaking," Obama said.

Congressional Republicans afterward said they would fight any attempt to legalize any of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country before the administration secured the nation's southern border with Mexico, the Post said.

"It is pointless to talk about any new immigration bills that grant amnesty until we secure the border, since such bills will only encourage more illegal immigration," incoming House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said.

While deficit reduction, healthcare reform, rolling back Wall Street regulations and immigration may be sexy, they aren't the only matters up for debate.

Congressional Republicans who have fought against increases in federal student aid and new regulations aimed at for-profit colleges will have influential roles on key committees, which could spark how Obama's administration approaches important higher education issues, reported.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has pushed for stronger regulation of for-profit colleges, which account for some of the largest online education programs in the nation, after government investigations uncovered some less-than-desirable recruitment practices. Proposed so-called "gainful employment" rules would force for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University to prove their students are repaying their education loans before the institutions can access billions in federal financial aid.

Republican lawmakers sent letters to Duncan asking that the "gainful employment" proposals be scrapped. Boehner also has pushed for Congress to wipe out a rule that bars for-profit colleges from taking in more than 90 percent of tuition from federal financial aid programs.

The Senate is considering revising its filibuster rules, used adeptly by Republicans to force double votes on some measures and outright kill others, but observers note Democrats may want to rethink their position on cloture votes just in case they become the minority party.

Democrats and Republicans say the Nov. 2 election results called for change -- but their interpretation of what that change looks like differs along the party's divide.

One political observer notes it could be a case of same-old, same-old. A editorial says it doesn't hold out much hope for sweeping change, if any real change at all, despite being ushered in on a wave of voter discontent with the status quo.

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