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updated 1/3/2011 9:19:17 AM ET 2011-01-03T14:19:17

Two early showdowns on government spending and debt will signal whether the new Congress can find common ground despite its partisan divisions or whether it's destined for gridlock and brinkmanship that could threaten the nation's economic health.

Not all of the bickering in the 112th Congress that convenes Wednesday will be between Republicans and Democrats. House Republicans, back in power after four years in the minority, will include numerous newcomers whose unyielding stands on the deficit, in particular, could severely test soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner's ability to bridge differences and pass major bills.

Story: The GOP's key players going into 2012
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His first big challenge will come in February, when Congress must pass a huge spending bill to keep the government running. Many House Republicans — veterans and newcomers alike — have pledged to cut discretionary domestic spending by up to $100 billion.

Even if they agree on a plan, it probably will be changed by the Senate, where Democrats will hold a 53-47 edge. And President Barack Obama can veto almost any bill he opposes during the next two years.

Video: Will Obama, House build on bipartisanship?

Before Boehner deals with Democrats' objections, he may have trouble getting his own 241-member caucus to agree on what to cut, and how deeply. Republicans have a history of promising far more cuts in spending than they deliver.

Some conservative activists and commentators are tired of it. "They love to cut taxes but cannot bring themselves to cut spending," Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review Online. "It's eat dessert first and leave the spinach on the table."

Several freshman Republican lawmakers are aligned with the ultraconservative tea party movement, which champions spending cuts and balanced budgets. But even tea party activists are unable or unwilling to name sizable government programs they are willing to cut, said Duke University political scientist Mike Munger. He ran for North Carolina governor as a libertarian and has met with many tea party supporters.

Passing a major spending bill may look easy when compared with the challenge Congress will face in the spring: raising the federal debt ceiling, an exercise that's anathema to some die-hard conservatives. Economists and scores of political leaders say the alternatives are much worse: Let the U.S. default on its debts, which could trigger a global recession, or drastically cut federal spending to levels neither party has imagined.

The current debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion, enacted last February. The federal debt, nearly $13.9 trillion, grows by $4 billion a day.

"Where the rubber will hit the road will be on the debt limit," said John Feehery, a Republican adviser and former top House aide. "What kind of budget concessions will Obama agree to in exchange for keeping the government functioning?"

Video: Washington braces for new political order (on this page)

Lawmakers might buy some time by passing temporary extensions of a budget and a higher debt ceiling. Eventually they must work out a long-term solution. Obama has made it clear that Republicans share responsibility for finding one.

"Nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse," Obama said in early December. No one enjoys voting to raise the debt limit, he said. "But once John Boehner is sworn in as speaker, then he's going to have responsibilities to govern. You can't just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower."

Boehner essentially has acknowledged that. He said of the debt ceiling, "We are going to have to deal with it as adults, whether we like it or not. The federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

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Lawmakers say the likeliest scenario calls for a promise of future spending cuts, even if somewhat vague, that might persuade enough House Republicans to agree to raise the debt ceiling.

Some predict a fierce fight. The national Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, seemed to encourage lawmakers to vote against a higher debt ceiling shortly before the November elections. "We are not going to compromise on raising the debt ceiling," he told CNN.

If Congress fails to reach accord on either a spending bill in February or a debt ceiling solution, it's possible that much of the federal government would shut down for lack of funding. That's what happened in 1995, and many Republicans don't want a repeat.

The Republican-led Congress at the time clashed with President Bill Clinton over the budget, letting portions of the government close during the impasse. Public opinion swung against the Republicans, and the episode helped propel Clinton toward his 1996 re-election.

Even if the Boehner-led House can resolve its budget and debt differences with the White House, there could be trouble in the Senate. Republicans there can halt almost any bill with procedural maneuvers to delay a final vote.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee hopes to lead a group of colleagues in demanding tax and spending reforms before they agree to raise the debt ceiling.

But eyes will fall first on the House. Sixty-four Democratic-held seats have switched to Republicans, and some of the new Republican lawmakers have promised voters they would change the way Congress spends itself into debt.

"I don't envy John Boehner," said David DiMartino, a Democratic consultant and former Senate aide. "The looming vote on the debt ceiling will demonstrate Boehner's ability to lead," he said. "If that vote melts down he's likely to fail to regain any semblance of control."

The White House is offering little sympathy.

"There are no easy choices when it comes to cutting spending," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. Republicans ran a successful campaign by promising vaguely to cut taxes and spending, he said, and now they have to present a budget and "explain what it is they are willing to cut."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Washington braces for new political order

Explainer: The GOP's key players going into 2012

  • Republicans are taking control of the House for the first time since 2006, while in the Senate they’ve gained six seats and can block most Democratic initiatives. Here are some of the important committee chairmen and the pivotal GOP senators who will help determine the outcome of legislative struggles with the Democrats over the next two years.

  • Rep. Spencer Bachus, chair, House Financial Services Committee

    Gary Cameron  /  Reuters

    A soft-spoken Alabaman, Bachus will have a crucial role in overseeing banking, consumer protection and securities trading. His domain will include the Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as troubled government-owned mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He doesn’t have the rhetorical flash and stinging wit of his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Barney Frank, with whom he has often jousted. Bachus drew fire when he told The Birmingham News on Dec. 9 that, “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” He later amended that comment, saying that regulators should not micromanage banks, but should set ground rules for how they operate. “Bachus' staff is going to be very busy getting him to retract statements in which he reveals what he really believes about a fundamental issue before the Committee,” Frank said.

  • Sen. Scott Brown, R- Mass.

    Hyungwon Kang  /  Reuters

    Brown’s victory in the Jan. 19, 2010 special election to fill out the unexpired term of Sen. Edward Kennedy signaled that the tide was turning against President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress. No Republican had won a Senate election in Massachusetts since 1972, when Brown was only 13 years old. Brown must run for re-election in 2012 and as a Republican senator from one of the nation’s most Democratic states, he’s a sensitive political indicator. With his vote being closely watched on every major issue, Brown voted for the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members. But he voted against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants, calling it "backdoor amnesty."

  • Rep. Eric Cantor, House majority leader

    Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters

    Elected in 2000, Cantor has risen to become one of his party’s most visible spokesman and a principal tactician for House Republicans. He got started in politics as a teenager by serving as a driver for Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va. Cantor now holds the Richmond-based House seat that Bliley once held.

  • Rep. David Dreier, chair, House Rules Committee

    Harry Hamburg  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    One of several Californians in leadership positions in the new Republican majority, Dreier will have the job of designing the rules for each piece of legislation that comes to the House, including how many amendments the minority party can offer to bills. First elected in 1980, Dreier served as Rules Committee chairman from 1998 to 2006, when the GOP was in the majority. If process controls legislative substance, then Dreier is the one who’ll control the process.

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, chair, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

    Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images

    The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Issa was born and raised in Cleveland and made his money in the car alarm business. He helped underwrite the recall effort against California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and spent $11 million on an unsuccessful bid to be GOP Senate candidate against Sen. Barbara Boxer in 1998. The six-term California Republican has promised to investigate vigorously alleged abuses of power by Obama administration officials. "Our committee is the committee of stopping government from taking away your liberties” and “stopping government from exceeding its authority,” he said. 

  • Sen. Jon Kyl, Senate minority whip

    Michael Reynolds  /  EPA

    Serving his third term in the Senate, after four terms in the House, Kyl is the chief GOP vote counter, figuring out members’ sentiment on bills and nominations. He’s up for re-election in 2012. The son of a former House member from Iowa, Kyl led the opposition to the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia. “What we ought to be doing is focusing on Iran and North Korea and other places where maybe there is proliferation going on, and a desire to develop nuclear weapons that could potentially attack the United States,” he said.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House majority whip

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    First elected in 2006 from a safe Republican district which includes his hometown, Bakersfield, Calif., McCarthy has vaulted with impressive speed to the third-ranking position in GOP House leadership. He’ll be the first Republican from California to serve as majority whip. McCarthy learned politics from his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas, whose seat he won when Thomas retired. McCarthy was Republican leader when he served in the California Assembly. According to the Los Angeles Times, McCarthy has “an encyclopedic knowledge about his House colleagues' idiosyncrasies and political needs” and “has pored over the profiles of lawmakers and their districts in the thick Almanac of American Politics on flights between California and Washington.”

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, chair, House Budget Committee

    Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP

    A native of Janesville, Wisc., Budget Committee chairman Ryan has long been his party’s most articulate spokesman on spending. If Republicans really intend to cut spending, Ryan can tell them exactly where and how to do it. But Ryan’s plan for a voucher system to replace the open-ended Medicare entitlement makes some Republicans skittish. In the 2008 election, President Obama carried Ryan’s congressional district with 51 percent of the vote.

  • Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    Snowe is one of the decisive senators in the center whose vote often tells if a bill or amendment will pass. She is up for re-election in 2012. Obama won her state in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote. She opposed the Obama administration by voting against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants. She voted for the administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.

  • Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

    Harry Hamburg  /  AP

    South Dakota cattle rancher and ex-state legislator Kristi Noem is one of two members of the class of 2010 who’ll be part of the House GOP leadership. She defeated Democrat Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, getting 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Delivering the weekly address for her party on Dec. 11, Noem twice used the word “humble,” calling herself "part of a new majority committed to being humble, more modest ... We are committed to making sure Washington humbles itself ...” Noem was a college student when her father was killed in an accident on the family farm. “I was 22-years old, we got hit pretty hard with estate taxes at that point in time, and I really started to recognize the impact that government and taxes had on small businesses and in an agricultural state like South Dakota,” she told an interviewer.

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