Congress expects symbolic motions

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WASHINGTON -- Get ready for some slam-bang action from the new Republican-led House after the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday: It's going to read the entire Constitution aloud and try to repeal the new health care law and cut federal spending dramatically.

But despite what's likely to be a January full of big talk, big votes and big ideas, the most important policy decisions are unlikely for several weeks and maybe months, and then only after some titanic power struggles.

While House Republicans will have a 242-193 majority, the biggest GOP margin since the first Truman administration, any legislation must be approved by the Democratic-dominated Senate and signed by President Barack Obama. As a result, "what you're going to see at first is a lot of fire and brimstone, and votes on symbolically important legislation," veteran budget analyst Stan Collender said.

House Republicans are dominated by 85 freshmen, most of them loyal to the conservative grass-roots tea party movement, and backers want a more limited form of government.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, thinks tea party strength in the House will be tested within the first 90 to 120 days, particularly on budget matters and the health care law.

In the Senate, Democrats will have a 53-47 majority, down five seats from last month but still enough to give the party a huge say in legislation.

Ultimately, analysts and lawmakers expect some spring/summer compromise on the day's biggest issues. But as the new Congress begins, they're also watching five key developments to see how they play in America's heartland:

• Reading of the Constitution aloud on the House floor Thursday. The House GOP's "Pledge to America" promises that no one can introduce legislation without a statement "citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution" to enact it.

• Repealing health care. To tea party activists, the 2010 health care law's mandate that nearly everyone have health insurance coverage or face a penalty is a dangerous extension of federal power. The House decided late Monday that it would vote on the repeal Jan. 12.

No one expects a repeal to stick, because 60 votes are needed to overcome a Senate filibuster and two-thirds majorities of members of Congress present in both chambers would be required to override an Obama veto. But the House debate and vote could provide important clues about how Republicans would replace the current system.

• Paring the budget. House Republicans have vowed to cut $100 billion from the budget and cut spending back to 2008-09 levels. They're expected to make recommendations on budget-cutting rules today. Among the changes: Any new mandatory spending would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere. Tax increases wouldn't be permitted.

• Raising the debt limit. The government is expected to hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit early this year. Unless that number is raised, Washington would be unable to borrow, or to pay for government services.

• Rules on debate. Frustrated by Republicans using the filibuster -- extended debate -- to block or slow legislation from coming to the Senate floor, some Senate Democrats plan to propose Wednesday changing the way the chamber conducts its business. The House will vote Friday on its own rules for debate.

Senate Democrats intend to propose making it easier to formally consider legislation.


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