Republicans set for fresh assault on Obama's healthcare reforms

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Riding back into town as the new majority party in the House of Representatives, gleeful Republicans will this week waste no time in asserting their agenda on Capitol Hill, introducing as a first step a bill to repeal the most hard-fought achievement of President Barack Obama in his first two years in office: the healthcare reform law.

The new 241-194 Republican majority in the lower chamber of Congress that emerged from the midterm elections of November will mean stiffer headwinds for Mr Obama as he returns from his Christmas break in Hawaii and embarks on the second half of his first term as President with more than half an eye fixed on re-election next year.

The next few days will not be without some theatrics on Capitol Hill, notably on Thursday when Republicans in the House, led by soon-to-be speaker John Boehner of Ohio, will deliver a public reading of the US Constitution, the document that Tea Partiers ritualistically cite as they accuse Mr Obama of government over-reach.

Party strategists want to see the healthcare repeal bill passed by the full House before Mr Obama arrives on Capitol Hill later this month to deliver the annual State of the Union address. It may not get any further, however, with Democrats still clinging on to a majority in the US Senate. Even if Republicans were able to navigate the law through the upper chamber, Mr Obama would be certain to veto it upon itsarrival for signature in the Oval Office.

As the new Congress convenes for the first time tomorrow, the stakes for all sides will be unusually high. While the Republicans may at first savour their new-found strength, they will also know that with it comes responsibility. Voters are unlikely to show them much forbearance if progress on Capitol Hill falls victim to partisan rancour.

Yet, the Republican Party must also find ways to honour the wishes of Tea Party voters who galvanised the base last year and sent a new class of conservatives to Washington with clear instructions to impede Mr Obama whenever possible, shrink government, slash federal spending, lower taxes and return rights to the states.

While the reciting of the Constitution will be symbolic, the series of aggressive investigations that the party is likely to launch almost immediately will not be. Leading that effort will be the new chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Darrell Issa of California. He will have the power of subpoena to force members of the Obama administration to come to Capitol Hill and defend it against allegations of federal profligacy.

The new House majority will also seek ways to undo any new regulatory initiatives by the administration that Republicans oppose, most importantly steps announced by the Environmental Protection Agency before Christmas to curb emissions from large industrial complexes and power plants. "We will not allow the administration to regulate what they have been unable to legislate," Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, warned at the weekend.

And if party leaders know the Obamacare repeal bill is likely to die in the Senate, they still think the message will be heard by voters. And they will seek other means to dismantle the President's reform programme. "If we pass this bill with a sizable vote, and I think that we will, it will put enormous pressure on the Senate to do perhaps the same thing," Mr Upton said. "After that, we're going to go after this bill piece-by-piece."

Some Democrats say they are ready to reopen the fight on healthcare reform because they think they will win it. The party of the President has already readied a campaign to remind voters of what they have gained from reform, including a prohibition on insurance companies turning away patients with pre-existing conditions.

"For months, Republicans have been shovelling out hypocrisy and lies to the American public," said Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York.

The posturing and bristling may seem as nothing, however, beside the confrontation that is brewing over the federal debt. Later this winter or in the spring the White House will be forced to go to Congress to ask for an increase in the federal debt ceiling. But allowing for yet more borrowing would be anathema to the Tea Party flank.

Yet, bumping up against the debt's $14.3 trillion ceiling without extending it would mean "defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history," said Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and he warned the Republicans not to stand in the way. "The impact on the economy would be catastrophic," he said.


Darrell Issa

Congressman from California, will use his position as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to launch serial investigations into "bloated" federal spending, summoning members of the Obama administration – with subpoenas if necessary – to testify.

John Boehner Congressman from Ohio, will be the new House Speaker and therefore the face of the new Republican majority in the lower House. He has a soft side as a frequent weeper. But don't expect the bipartisan spirit that briefly reigned before Christmas to endure as he leads the charge against Obamacare.

Eric Cantor Congressman from Virginia, is set to be Boehner's number two with the title Majority Leader. A good performer in front of the television cameras and of eminently sharp mind, Cantor is in tune with the party's conservative wing and will relish pushing for the repeal of Obamacare.

Mitch McConnell

The top Republican in the Senate will fight to push legislation passed by his party in the House through the Senate. It won't be easy because the Democrats will still maintain a majority, albeit a diminished one, in the upper chamber. He has said his priority number one is to deny Obama re-election.

Michele Bachmann

The ultra-conservative from Minnesota founded the first Tea Party caucus in the House last year. She has been re-elected and will become the informal spokesperson for the movement on Capitol Hill. Tensions between her and the party leadership will create sparks.

The likely fights

Immigration reform Obama must make some headway at least or risk losing Hispanic support.

Debt ceiling Disaster and default loom if Republicans refuse to authorise more federal borrowing.

Healthcare Republicans are bent on dismantling Obamacare, if necessary by starving it of funds.

Taxes The battle over Bush tax cuts for the rich will be rejoined in 2012. The liberals want them scrapped.

Afghanistan Congress and the voters are weary of war. Can Obama start withdrawals this year as he promised?