Video: Obama returns to new year, new challenges

  1. Transcript of: Obama returns to new year, new challenges

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: President Obama is counting down the final hours of his family vacation in Hawaii . He returns tomorrow morning to a different Washington than the city he left. Our White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie with us tonight with a preview of what's to come in Washington . And, Savannah , starting with this, a lot of people have heard the Republicans say they want to bring up Obama 's health care plan, bring it back up for a vote to defeat it even though it's been signed, sealed and delivered. So how exactly will that work?

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: All right, House Republicans say not so fast. They intend to hold a vote next week, they've announced, to repeal the health care law outright. Now, this will likely pass the House because Republicans now control the House starting this week. It will not pass the Senate . And, of course, the president has his veto pen. And you get the feeling here at the White House they're really relishing this debate, and because they think the health care law, now that it's gone into effect, has proved itself to be beneficial and a lot of people won't want to see those benefits go. Nevertheless, this is the new reality that the president faces. He returns tonight from Hawaii . Republicans will seize control of the House on Wednesday. The new speaker, John Boehner , will be sworn in, and there will be some symbolic gestures they're planning. House Republicans are to read the Constitution aloud on the House floor on Thursday. The president also has some staff decisions to think about. For one thing, some senior advisers, like David Axelrod , will be leaving. There's a possibility of a new press secretary. And NBC News has learned that the former commerce secretary under Clinton, Bill Daley , is being considered for a possible chief of staff role here at the White House . And then, Brian , there is a State of the Union to write, probably going to be later this month.

    WILLIAMS: All right. Savannah Guthrie at the very busy White House prior to the president's return from vacation. Savannah, as always,

Image: Darrell Issa
Harry Hamburg  /  AP
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 15. The Republican agenda for the 112th Congress that convenes Wednesday may have a greater impact on the 2012 elections than the lives of Americans in the next two years. Issa, the chief Republican investigator, is anxious to get started. As the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he's been especially critical of what he calls waste in Obama's economic stimulus spending.
By
updated 1/3/2011 9:20:36 AM ET 2011-01-03T14:20:36

Even if the next two years end in congressional gridlock, Republicans hope to build a record that demonstrates to voters in 2012 that they can get it right.

The GOP is promising to use the new Congress that convenes Wednesday to cut spending, roll back President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and prevent unelected bureaucrats from expanding the government's role in society through regulations that tell people what they must or can't do.

Passing their top priorities may be easier in the House, where Republicans hold a 241-194 majority. It will be harder in the Senate where Democrats still hold an edge, though smaller than the one Obama had during his first two years in the White House.

Story: The GOP's key players going into 2012

But if the GOP agenda fails to change the lives of Americans, it could still prove to have a greater impact on next year's elections.

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House Republicans pledge to take hard line
House Republicans also pledge to hold tough investigations and hearings on the president's programs and policies, ending the free pass that Democratic committee chairmen gave the Obama administration the past two years.

Republicans insist they'll bring key administration officials before congressional microphones and that the public can watch the webcasts. The friendly tone of inquiry from Democratic chairmen will be replaced by Republicans demanding answers to these questions: What's the purpose of this program? Is this the best use of the taxpayers' money?

The chief Republican investigator, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, is raring to get started, and he's not alone. Issa, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been especially critical of what he calls waste in Obama's economic stimulus spending.

"The sooner the administration figures out that the enemy is the bureaucracy and the wasteful spending, not the other party, the better off we'll be," he told "Fox News Sunday."

Video: Will Obama, House build on bipartisanship? (on this page)

Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, incoming leader of the House Appropriations Committee, says he wants top officials from all major government agencies to appear and justify their spending.

The next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, says he'll work to stop over-zealous government regulators. A big target for him is the Environmental Protection Agency, which is writing rules to limit greenhouse gases blamed for global warming after Obama's effort to get Congress to do it stalled in the Senate last year.

Upton, like Issa, will have a large investigative staff.

"Republicans need to make sure they bring forward solutions, even though it may be difficult to get them accomplished," Rep.-elect Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said in an interview. She said the lesson from the November election is, "The American people will replace people if they're no longer in touch or listening."

Noem benefited from that view, defeating Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Noem has risen to the forefront of the freshman class; she was chosen to serve in the GOP leadership.

Kristi Noem
Harry Hamburg  /  AP
Then-Rep.-elect Kristi Noem, R-S.D. speaks during a Republican news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In the Senate, there's a chance the Democrats will replace Republicans as the party of "no," assuming the House GOP passes much of its agenda. Democrats will control the Senate 51-47 with two independents, and only need 41 votes to block initiatives that arrive from the House.

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Reasons why GOP agenda will mean more in '12
Among the reasons that the Republican agenda will likely have a bigger impact on the next election than on the day-to-day lives of most Americans are:

—Much of the government spending has been politically untouchable. About 60 percent goes for entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The nation also is paying for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and major reconstruction projects in those countries. Both parties have considered it politically foolish to mess with Medicare and Social Security. Also, Republicans don't have a clean record as budget cutters.

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"Spending restraint on the Republican side is a theory yet to be proven," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the budget-watching Concord Coalition. He noted that Democratic President Bill Clinton's budget surplus turned into deficit under Republican George W. Bush.

—Obama may be more willing to compromise with Republicans than in his first two years, but he will fight repealing the health care law. Senate Democrats will almost certainly stop major revisions. If for some reason they don't, Obama will use his veto to stop them.

—Republican attempts to overturn regulations on issues such as global warming also could falter in the Senate. When the EPA announced just before Christmas that it planned to set greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants and oil refineries, Upton said, "We will not allow the administration to regulate what they have been unable to legislate." Senate Democrats may have a different view.

Many eyes in the new session will focus on Issa, who will have subpoena power and can investigate any government program.

Eyes turn to Issa
Issa has played good cop and bad cop. He criticized Obama's most important programs, including the economic stimulus. But less than a month after the Republicans won big in November, he had a private peace meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. Neither is shy about entering a political brawl, but initially they have pledged to work together against waste and for openness in tracking government spending.

Issa has not discouraged articles suggesting he will send the administration subpoenas by the trainload. But he also wants to give subpoena power to nonpolitical government watchdogs — inspectors general — and let them use that authority to uncover fraud, waste and abuse. With a degree of political cover, Issa could then use those findings to conduct his own investigations.

If the peace pact between Biden and Issa holds, there are other issues where the Obama administration and congressional Republicans can compromise — as they did on extending Bush-era tax cuts for all, coupled with an extension of unemployment benefits sought by the president.

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The incoming House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, favors overhauling tax laws. So does Obama.

"The tax code is longer than the Bible, but without the happy ending," Camp has said. "What we need is a comprehensive reform of the tax code that expands the tax base and lowers rates by being fairer, simpler and conducive to growth."

That's not too far, in theory, from Obama's desire to "simplify confusing provisions in the tax code, encouraging saving and creating a tax system that works for all Americans." The challenge will be in reaching agreement on the details.

There could be times when Obama will be closer to Republicans than to liberal Democrats, who were furious that Obama agreed to continue tax cuts for the wealthy — and to levy inheritance taxes only on the very richest Americans.

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is being replaced as the House's majority leader, was asked by a reporter near the end of the last Congress how much trust exits between Obama and liberals.

"On a scale of one to 10 I'm not going to give you how much," he said. "As you know, I'm not willing to kind of create or affirm a breach between the White House and the Congress. I think there's always tension and there should be."

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

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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