Discarding their image as the party of obstruction, Republicans opened the new Congress promising a flurry of activity designed to put Democrats on the defensive by daring them to oppose efforts to shrink the role of government.
The new Republican House majority is taking the lead in this latest ideological battle between conservatives and liberals that will shape the 2012 campaign. Watching closely from the wings is an influential group of Republican politicians — the party’s potential presidential contenders, who have essentially ceded control over the issue agenda to lawmakers in Washington.
“That’s extraordinarily unusual,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “Usually, the presidential candidates would set the agenda. In this case, it’s going to be the Congress. They’re playing a much more significant role, simply because we have the majority.”
The new Republican agenda, much of it to be acted on over the next few days and weeks, include House votes seeking to repeal last year’s healthcare overhaul and sharp cuts — as much as 20% — in domestic spending, particularly for social programs and regulatory regimes favored by Democrats.
The aggressive agenda is in contrast to the previous Congress, in which Republicans — outnumbered in both the House and Senate — became the “party of no,” determined to block Democratic proposals.
“The overarching, defining contours of the 2012 campaign are going to be the economy, spending and healthcare, and what happens in this session of Congress,” said Ralph Reed, a Republican advisor.
Many of the GOP initiatives, including scrapping the healthcare law, will die in the Senate, which remains in Democratic hands.
But the votes will have a larger purpose: satisfying the Republican Party’s conservative base and demonstrating to voters nationwide that the new Republican leaders in Congress are heeding “the instructions” of last year’s election to “end business as usual,” as new House Speaker John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) said Wednesday.
The outcome of the new “battle of ideas” that Boehner welcomed in his first speech as speaker could also influence internal Republican politics and what is shaping up as the party’s most wide-open presidential nomination fight in more than 30 years.
GOP presidential hopefuls — none of whom has formally declared a candidacy — are staying out of sight.
Likely 2012 contenders were largely absent from the Capitol’s opening-day festivities: None is a prominent congressional figure.
President Obama also ceded the public stage, for the day, to the opposition. Secure in the knowledge that he’ll be renominated, the president will try to pick his fights with a divided Congress.
“The real action is in the House right now. It’s how Boehner takes over as speaker. It’s how Republicans in the House fulfill their campaign promises,” said Scott Reed, who managed Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “Anybody who would be out trying to compete with what’s going on in the Congress right now would be swimming upstream.”
There are risks in the Republican strategy of launching such a series of confrontational initiatives.
For one, there is a chance that voters may blame Republicans, as they did in the mid-1990s, if the tug-of-war in Washington degenerates into more partisan stalemate, prompts a government shutdown or temporarily delays an increase in the debt limit, which would reverberate through world financial markets.
The public could also come to regard some of the GOP initiatives as too extreme, particularly as Democrats push back.
Already, Democrats are characterizing the House Republican plan to repeal the healthcare law as a budget-buster, arguing that it would add $143 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years. The figure refers to projected savings from Medicare cuts and tax increases contained in the new law.
Among the most important dynamics will be the interplay between the performance of Republicans in Congress and the expectations of Republican voters, particularly those who take part in the primaries and caucuses that will select the party’s nominee next year.
No group is likely to get more attention than conservative “tea party” sympathizers in Congress, whose demands for sweeping change could complicate efforts by Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to get things done.
“You have this massive freshman class which has already defined the agenda by focusing on healthcare, focusing on fiscal responsibility and job creation that is now the leadership agenda, and it comes straight from the tea party movement,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a leading tea party group.
“Right now, everybody is marching to the same tune,” he added. “The only way to keep Republicans in line on that agenda is through continuous, credible grassroots pressure — because, left to their own devices, they are likely to revert to business as usual.”
If Republicans in Congress let conservative activists down, it could create an opportunity for GOP contenders closely identified with the tea party movement, Kibbe said.
How voters respond to the performance of the new Republican majority “depends on how you define ‘deliver,’ ” pollster Newhouse said.
He brushed aside the suggestion that Democrats could capitalize politically should House Republicans back away from a campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in federal spending in their first year in power.
“This is going to be an austerity Congress. Regardless of whether they cut $100 billion or $50 billion, there are going to be significant cuts. Americans are getting the message that Republicans are serious about accomplishing what they set out to do,” Newhouse said.
But at the same time, he said, “people believe it took us years to get into this mess. They don’t expect us to get out immediately, but they want to see progress.”