The GOP House's Opening Act: Making a Statement — or Making a Mockery?

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From left: Nicholas Kamm / Getty Images; Alex Brandon / AP

Outgoing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Republican House Speaker–designate John Boehner

Two months after a sweeping victory in the midterm elections, Republicans will officially reclaim the House of Representatives on Wednesday. But before the new majority party begins the business of governing — which it doesn't even really get down to until the end of the month — it will take the opportunity to savor its triumph and make a statement with a good dose of Washington political theater.

At about noon, the House clerk will call the chamber to order. After reciting a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the members will elect Representative John Boehner as Speaker. The Ohioan will be presented by his predecessor, outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before swearing in the largest GOP freshman class in more than half a century.

Then the festivities will begin in earnest. Later in the afternoon, the GOP will introduce the Rules of the 112th Congress, a package of relatively radical provisions the party says will help reform the House budget process, ferret out waste and heighten transparency. (To the latter end, Republicans plan to live-stream the opening day's events on Facebook.) On Thursday morning, in a ceremony to be led by Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, House Republicans — and Democrats who accept an invitation to participate — will read aloud all 4,543 words of the Constitution, the text many of its members made the centerpiece of their fall campaigns. Then, on Friday, the GOP will punctuate a momentous week by opening a floor debate on repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Barring delay, House Republicans will repeal the outgoing Democratic Congress's signature legislative accomplishment on Jan. 12, just a week after regaining control of the lower chamber.

Showcasing their fealty to the Constitution and fulfilling seminal campaign-trail promises are elements of the continuing courtship of the Tea Party activists who propelled the Republicans back to power — and with whom the GOP remains on probation. "We know very clearly that that election was a repudiation of what had gone on in this town," Eric Cantor, the incoming majority leader, told reporters on Tuesday, echoing the solemn sense of humility that Boehner and other congressional Republicans have taken pains to project in recent months. "It wasn't necessarily an election about us."

Even this week, some Republicans will receive bracing reminders that defying the conservative principles they ran on will be grounds for rebellion. Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization of local Tea Party affiliates, has encouraged its members to stalk the halls of Congress and pepper members with phone calls that herald the movement's principles.

But moving swiftly to eviscerate the health care law isn't merely a not-so-subtle overture to the conservative base. It also sets the tone for what could be a bitter two years of gamesmanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill, particularly since most legislation House Republicans shepherd through will likely perish in the still Democratic-controlled Senate. That will almost certainly be the fate of the health care repeal effort, which is officially titled the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, dubbed it a "disingenuous" piece of political theater. "It's a kabuki dance. The fact of the matter is, we're not going to repeal it," she told reporters on Tuesday. "If it weren't so sad, it would be laughable."

At a press conference on the last full day before surrendering her gavel, Pelosi — the nation's first female Speaker — declined an invitation to reflect on her historic tenure. "I don't really look back," she said, instead promising to fight to preserve the health care law's key provisions and work with Republicans when the parties' interests align. Eschewing an elegy, her colleagues struck a combative tone, congratulating Republicans on their election victory while vowing to spotlight the chasm between their political rhetoric and governing realities. "We will watch for every Republican hypocrisy and call them on it when we see it," said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who has been tasked with a greater role in crafting the party's message.

For now, that message is that the repeal effort is an empty political gimmick that would do "serious violence to the national debt and deficit," as Pelosi put it, in the unlikely event that it were enacted. On Tuesday, Cantor disputed the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's estimate that the bill will slash the deficit by $143 billion through 2019. "I think most people understand that the CBO did the job it was asked to do by the then Democrat majority," he said, while defending the party's decision not to come up with tax or spending measures to offset the estimated budgetary impact of repeal. Representative Chris Van Hollen, who will be the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, derided the idea that repeal wouldn't expand the deficit as "Enron-type accounting," while colleagues blasted the GOP for its plan to take the bill to the floor without going through an amendment process. Cantor argued that was unnecessary. "This has been litigated in this last election," he said.

Such sparring foreshadows what most observers expect to be a charged, contentious session. In the coming months, Boehner's lieutenants will probe Democratic policies on everything from national security, climate change and financial regulation to education, illegal immigration and Net neutrality. Darrell Issa, incoming chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has signaled his intention to become the President's personal gadfly, while Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King plans to hold hearings on the "radicalization" of Muslims in the U.S.

Yet the GOP faces challenges of its own. The party has promised to cut spending by $100 billion, but for the most part it has yet to specify how — except by indicating that it wants to scale back spending to 2008 levels apart from military, veterans or homeland-security expenditures. (On Tuesday, Cantor said that all cuts were "on the table," adding that defense would be a priority for the party.) And it faces a looming showdown over the federal debt ceiling: most economists believe any failure to raise the debt ceiling would usher in a worldwide financial meltdown, but the vote could open fault lines between leaders like Boehner — who called the vote over whether the government should increase its borrowing limit to meet its financial obligations "the first really big adult moment for the new Republican majority" — and an emboldened Tea Party wing bent on slashing government spending no matter the potential cost.

But as the close of the 111th Congress proved, the 112th is hardly consigned to total gridlock. Even amid Tuesday's barb-slinging, leaders in both parties cited overlapping priorities, including job creation and debt reduction. And they could find common ground in the effort to reform a tax code both sides say is overly cumbersome. "They are going to play to their base for a certain period of time," President Obama said of the Republicans, as he returned from his Hawaiian vacation to a changed capital. "But I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people."

Economically hurting Americans can only hope the President is right. And on Wednesday, in addition to celebrating a major electoral victory, Republicans will become a full partner in that process, for better and for worse.