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As New Session Opens, Obama Faces Combative Congress

  • Heather Maher

Incoming Speaker John Boehner has pledged to hold a vote on legislation that would repeal the U.S. health-care reform bill passed in 2010.

Incoming Speaker John Boehner has pledged to hold a vote on legislation that would repeal the U.S. health-care reform bill passed in 2010.

WASHINGTON – A new session of the U.S. Congress opens today in Washington that is expected to put the White House and Democratic legislators on the defensive against Republican challenges to President Barack Obama’s spending and policy priorities.

Legislators taking their seats today in a politically divided Congress include more than 60 newly elected Republicans in the House of Representatives, which has shifted from Democratic to Republican control after November's midterm elections, by a margin of 242-193. In the Senate, Democrats lost six seats but still hold a narrow majority of 53 to 47.

With Republicans now in control of the House for the next two years, members of Obama’s Democratic Party will face opposition to future initiatives as well as attempts to undo legislation that has already passed, most notably the landmark health-care reform bill.

Republicans have announced that their top priority is to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year in a drive to shrink the nearly $14 trillion federal deficit. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina says his party is gearing up for a "showdown” over spending with Obama.

Speaking on January 2 on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” DeMint's fellow Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of North Carolina said the election results proved that Americans want to see strong action against the ballooning national debt.

“The mandate of the last election was pretty clear to me – that the Democratic policies from 2008-10 were rejected by the American people because they created too much debt and they grew the government too much,” Graham said.

Effort To Repeal 'Obamacare'

The shift of power in the House will not begin quietly. On January 6, Republican leaders plan to read the U.S. Constitution aloud on the House floor, in a bow to the new legislators in the Tea Party movement – a wing of the Republican Party with sharply conservative fiscal beliefs that adheres to a strict interpretation of America's founding charter.

Republicans' opening salvo against the White House will be a vote in the House to repeal what they derisively call “Obamacare” -- the historic reform bill Obama signed into law last spring that extends health insurance to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

U.S. President Barack Obama, surrounded by lawmakers, signs the health-care insurance reform legislation on March 23, 2010.

Dozens of congressional candidates campaigned successfully on pledges to repeal the law, which was held up as a disastrous example of big government and overspending.

But the vote to repeal will only be symbolic, observers say, since it would not pass the Democratic-majority Senate and even if it did, Obama would veto the move.

That's why some Republicans say they will attack the bill’s funding sources. The new chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee -- Fred Upton of Michigan -- says he and his colleagues will “go after the bill piece by piece” in an attempt to dismantle it completely.

'Despicable Machine'

New House Republican Allan West of Florida, who campaigned as a member of the Tea Party, used fiery rhetoric in his campaign speeches to describe the health-care bill and vowed that, if elected, he would ensure that the “liberal, progressive, socialist agenda -- this left wing, vile, vicious, despicable machine that’s out there -- is soundly brought to its knees.”

He defended that view this past weekend, telling Fox News that government-sponsored health insurance and long-term jobless benefits for the unemployed “creates victims” and “makes people overly dependent on government.”

“When you look at the incredible debt and the deficit that has occurred over the last two fiscal years, we’re going in the wrong direction," West said. "And I think that this liberal, progressive agenda is not the thing that the American people want and is the antithesis to who we are as a constitutional republic.”

But Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi, who gave her final press conference as speaker of the house on January 4, vowed that she and her colleagues will fight to protect the Democrats' accomplishments of the last two years.

“House Democrats will continue to protect the gains we have made on behalf of economic security for the American people, both in terms of the health-care reform bill and the Wall Street reform bill -- both of which give leverage to America’s working families,” she said.

'Build On Progress'

The man at the center of the political storm returned on January 3 from a 10-day holiday in Hawaii with his family and told reporters aboard Air Force One that the lashing partisan rhetoric wasn’t surprising and that he expects Republicans will “play to their [voting] base for a certain period of time.”

But Obama also said he expects to find cooperation among Republicans when it comes to issues of job creation and economic growth.

“My expectation, my hope, is that [House Majority Leader] John Boehner and [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell will realize that there will be plenty of time to campaign for 2012 in 2012, and that our job this year is to make sure that we build on the recovery," Obama said. "We started to make good progress on that during the lame duck, and I expect to build on that progress when I get back.”

The president can also expect to need a few good lawyers. Several incoming Republican House committee heads have announced plans to launch investigations into Obama administration decisions on everything from food safety recalls to Wall Street financial regulations.

Leading the scrutiny will be Representative Darrell Issa of California, the new chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. With the power to summon administration officials to testify, Issa has announced plans to launch six major investigations over the next three months.

They include the release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks; the role of government mortgage companies in the home foreclosure crisis; a government commission’s failure to identify the origins of the meltdown; and alleged corruption in Afghanistan.

'Real Reform'

Issa made headlines last year when he called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Speaking January 2 on CNN, he cast himself as a crusader for clean government.

"As Republicans, our goal is to repeal what was done on a partisan basis, come back and do, on a bipartisan basis, real reform," Issa said. "And my committee, which has the dominant amount of oversight historically, needs to make the case for where that waste, fraud, and abuse is, where government is part of the problem [and] where government can be part of the solution.”

The incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative Peter King of New York, has announced he will launch hearings into what he calls the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” King has alleged that some members of the U.S. Muslim community have not cooperated fully with law-enforcement authorities during terrorism investigations.

The plan prompted "The New York Times” to publish an editorial on January 2 that called King’s “sweeping slur on Muslim citizens…unacceptable” and urged him to abandon the planned hearings.

King responded by calling for the newspaper to be “indicted under the Espionage Act.”

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