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GOP deciding which direction to go with new authority after midterm victory

By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:23 AM

Jubilant over their landslide victory in the House and their pickup of six Senate seats, Republican leaders nevertheless face a dilemma as they debate how to exert their new authority.

Their energetic conservative base is eager to thwart President Obama's every move, and if Republicans fail at doing so, they risk disappointing the supporters who turned out in vast numbers for Tuesday's midterm elections.

But if Republicans overreach, and ultimately deliver very little, independents could return to the Democratic fold in time to reelect Obama.

In a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised that his emboldened party will try to repeal the health-care law that was passed this year, to block spending increases for most federal agencies and to cut some funding that Congress has already approved.

He reiterated that his overriding goal is to "deny President Obama a second term in office."

Yet McConnell has also spent recent weeks studying Republicans' 1994 midterm election victory, in which the party won back Congress, and urged his colleagues not to forget one of its lessons: the power of the veto. With every flourish of President Bill Clinton's pen, Republicans "ended up being viewed as failures, sellouts or both."

McConnell warned: "We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve, while at the same time recognizing that realism should never be confused with capitulation."

On Thursday, a few modest areas where the two parties might come together emerged.

Obama invited the GOP leadership to attend a bipartisan meeting at the White House on Nov. 18. It will focus on economic issues, particularly the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 that are due to expire at the end of the year. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama continues to oppose a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest earners but added, "I think there's common ground to be found in how to move forward."

Democrats and the president might agree to a temporary extension of tax cuts on upper income.

They are likely to go along with an expected House GOP measure that would cut the budget of the House itself. The chamber's costs are now more than $1.4 billion a year. The transportation committee, for instance, which doles out federal money for local highway and mass-transit projects, has 75 members - almost one of every five lawmakers in the House.

The House also will vote on a new package of rules for running the chamber. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is almost certain to be elected speaker, has said he would open up debate to give the Democratic minority more opportunity to be heard and would mandate a 72-hour review period for all bills.

"If I am fortunate enough to serve as Speaker of the House, we will run a much different kind of Congress - one that is humbler, more transparent, and respects the will and intelligence of the people," Boehner wrote in a letter to his Republican colleagues Wednesday.

Even though Republicans will command a significant majority in the House, many of the GOP initiatives rolled out in recent days represent incremental steps, rather than bold reforms.

House GOP aides said the first major bill to be considered when the new Congress convenes in January will be one that would cut federal agency spending by $100 billion, reducing the overall cost of running the government to 2008 levels.

In a memo to GOP members promoting his candidacy for majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), who is No. 2 in the GOP House leadership, called for weekly votes on spending cuts and proposed that House Republicans allow only one day each month for voting on inconsequential issues such as renaming post offices and other federal buildings.

In his memo, Cantor also said he would seek to continue the moratorium on earmarks that House Republicans established in March.

Democrats had agreed to a more narrow ban to prohibit earmarks from benefiting private contractors. But Obama is taking Cantor's side in the debate.

As a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to go through the federal budget "line by line" to "make sure that we are not spending money unwisely." But soon after taking office, he signed an omnibus spending bill that contained thousands of earmarks. On Wednesday, he cited earmarks as an area where his administration has fallen short.

Obama said of Cantor's proposed moratorium: "That's something I think we can work on together."

The obstacle to eliminating earmarks could be McConnell, a former member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has guarded lawmakers' prerogative to target spending for their home states. "You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money," he said in response to a question after this Heritage speech.

The two parties still disagree far more than they agree, and the split Congress - Democrats in charge of the Senate, Republicans running the House - will make it difficult for either side to move major legislation through the Capitol.

House GOP leaders say they want to undo the Democrats' health-care law altogether, for example. But Cantor acknowledged that the party faces long odds on achieving that.

"Even if our repeal bill makes it through the Senate, we can expect that President Obama will veto it," he said.

Instead, Republicans will try to change or eliminate portions of the legislation by relying on tools such as the the Congressional Review Act of 1996, a little-used statute that allows Congress to overturn a regulation before it takes effect by passing a "resolution of disapproval" in both chambers. But the measure can be vetoed.

Cantor said the House will seek to starve federal agencies of the funding needed to implement the health-care law. One likely target is the Internal Revenue Service, which must hire thousands of new workers to enforce the "individual mandate" once it takes effect. Under current law, most Americans will be required to provide proof of health insurance coverage starting on their 2014 tax returns.

One provision Republicans want to scrap immediately seeks to raise revenue by requiring small businesses to report transactions valued at more than $600. Companies have complained about the mountain of paperwork.

Obama conceded Wednesday that the provision is "probably counterproductive." If the small businesses "find it difficult to manage," he said, "that's something that we should take a look at."

murrays@washpost.com baconp@washpost.com

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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