The Republican party is poised for head-to-head clashes with President Barack Obama as it takes charge of the US House of Representatives today, promising an era of smaller government and less spending.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi turns over her speaker’s gavel to Rep John Boehner, who plans to quickly stage a vote to repeal Mr Obama’s health care overhaul, fulfilling promises the party made in the November election that put it back in control of the US Congress’ lower house.
While the measure was likely to pass by a sizeable margin, Democrats still control the Senate, where the repeal is expected to die.
Renewed action on health care – passage in the House, quiet death in the Senate - could serve as a template for legislative gridlock in the final two years of Mr Obama’s term.
But with the country still mired in a wobbly economic recovery and battered by near 10% unemployment, Mr Obama said he was counting on Republicans' ideological positions to cool as the congressional session moved forward.
“I’m pretty confident that they’re going to recognise that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we are creating a competitive economy for the 21st century,” Mr Obama said yesterday on his return flight from a two-week holiday in Hawaii.
He said the two sides could build on the final session of the previous congress late last year, when they agreed on a compromise to prevent income taxes from rising, extend unemployment benefits and enact a social security tax cut that took effect on Saturday.
Perhaps coincidentally, Mr Obama’s job approval rating has climbed to 50% according to the latest Gallup Poll tracking survey. The president’s approval number had been in the mid-40s for most of the last six months and he was last at the 50% mark in late spring.
Many politicians believe Americans are hungering for a more bi-partisan political climate.
For her part, however, Ms Pelosi was still stoking the partisan fires as she prepared to vacate the speaker’s office after six years.
The first woman to hold the speaker’s job said Democrats would be willing to work with Republicans when they presented “positive solutions”. But in nearly the same breath she called Republicans hypocrites for moving against health care.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the massive law will slightly reduce the government deficit over the next 10 years, a result that is in line with Republican calls for less spending. Repealing the law would increase the deficit, Ms Pelosi said.
She said House Democrats would focus on creating jobs, improving the economy and shrinking the budget deficit, which hit £840 million in the budget year that ended in September – a year in which Democrats controlled Congress and the White House.
For the Republicans, incoming majority leader Eric Cantor said he hoped Mr Obama would “re-evaluate his position on regulations”.
The party says the economy is over-regulated by the government, with Mr Obama’s health care legislation a key example.
Mr Cantor’s comments signalled the change in political realities since the 2008 election which gave Democrats control of the White House and both houses of congress.
Instead of opposing Mr Obama’s every proposal, as they did in 2009 and 2010, Republicans now must compromise with him if they are to show results in their drive to cut spending.
House Republicans also pledge to hold tough investigations and hearings on the president’s programmes and policies, ending the free pass that Democratic committee chairmen gave the Obama administration over the past two years.
Republicans insist they will bring key administration officials to Congress to explain how they are spending public money, with the friendly tone of inquiry from Democratic chairmen replaced by Republicans demanding: “What’s the purpose of this programme? Is this the best use of the taxpayers’ money?”
Conservative Republicans, including many newly-elected members of Congress backed by the conservative tea party movement, want spending cuts imposed immediately. A first test comes when politicians have to pass a massive spending bill to keep the government running.
Another critical juncture could come as early as March, when congress votes on whether to raise the government debt ceiling.
Some Republicans have said they will not vote to raise the debt limit unless there is a plan in place for dealing with long-term obligations, including social security, and for returning to 2008 spending levels.