The Era of Speaker John Boehner Begins

Republicans will try to repeal the president’s health-care reform law and slash federal spending.

Two months after November’s congressional elections, a Republican majority took power in the House of Representatives today. Wednesday afternoon John Boehner of Ohio became Speaker of the House. His priorities: to repeal the Democrats’ health reform bill and slash federal spending.

For several months Republicans have promised to rein in spending. With a deficit exceeding $1 trillion, or more than a third of expenditures, the opposition can’t be reasonable and compromise, especially when fiscally conservative Tea Party newcomers demand deep spending cuts.

Republican leaders know that the Tea Party insurrection launched against government overreach in the private sector, including health care, last year was not exclusively aimed at Democrats. Conservatives also blame Republicans who, during the Bush Administration, allowed a huge expansion in the size of government and a vast increase in public spending to occur. Federal spending nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008 in fact.

Even if neither party cheered last month’s compromise on tax cuts, the business lobby praised Republicans for extending current tax codes at the cost of extending unemployment insurance at the same time. But Tea Party groups have been critical. In a Politico op-ed the founders of Tea Party Patriots urged incoming legislators to challenge their party’s leadership if need be and stand on principle. “They have a mandate from the people to step up and lead,” they wrote.

Will they lead by principle? Or will they go along with Speaker-elect John Boehner, like so many sheep to the slaughter?

Republicans have pledged austerity in the new Congress. Two critical votes in the months ahead will test that promise.

In February, Congress is scheduled to enact a huge spending bill to keep the government running. Many incoming legislators have promised to cut discretionary domestic spending by up to $100 billion. Even if such a spending cut would reduce the deficit only minimally, the Democratic majority in the Senate may not accept it. John Boehner wants to avoid a government shutdown similar to the one that tarnished the 1994 Republican majority but he will be hard pressed to maintain discipline among his members when Congress has to raise the federal debt ceiling in the spring. The current debt ceiling, enacted last February, is $14.3 trillion. The president’s budget for this fiscal year will topple the national debt of $13.9 trillion, necessitating the vote.

Letting the nation default on its debt could trigger another global financial meltdown but some Tea Party conservatives have already announced that they will vote against the measure to protest runaway federal spending.

On health-care reform, there is no division among Republican ranks. The House is set to vote on repealing Obamacare next week — an effort that is almost certain to die either in the Senate, where the Democrats are still in the majority, or by presidential veto.

If Republicans fail in their repeal effort, they might try to undercut the federal government’s ability to enforce the least popular part of the law — the individual mandate which forces people to buy health insurance. By withholding funds for the IRS and health department in the House Appropriations Committee, which has to approve all federal spending, Republicans could delay the bill’s implementation in order to repeal it in 2012 when they expect to take back the Senate.

The first order of business in the new House of Representatives tomorrow will be a reading aloud of the Constitution. Some House Democrats have ridiculed a related rule that Speaker Boehner will enforce, requiring members to cite the specific constitutional authority for any bill they introduce. “It’s an air kiss they’re blowing to the Tea Party,” according to Barney Frank, outgoing chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Boehner has also announced to slash the sizes of House committees, meaning that each member will have a narrower focus for oversight and legislation. And he has promised to keep track of and publicize the names of members who show up to do their legislative work and those who don’t.