WASHINGTON — Emboldened by a commanding House majority and Senate gains, Republican leaders vowed Wednesday to deliver on their "golden opportunity" to roll back the size of government and President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
"Change course we will," said Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the speaker-in-waiting, describing Tuesday's midterm elections as a mandate to shrink the government. That echoed the unrelenting demand of the tea party activists whose energy and votes helped to fuel the largest turnover in the House in more than 70 years.
The capital awoke — if it ever slept — to a new political order, the largest House turnover in 70 years. With their lopsided win, Republicans are ushering in a new era of divided government and dethroning Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a prime target of their campaign.
"The American people spoke and I think it is pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner said.
Repealing the health care law, with its mandates and subsidies to extend health insurance to nearly all Americans, has been a Republican rallying cry for months but Obama, with his veto power, and the Democrats still in control of the Senate stand in the way. Several Republicans indicated their challenge to the law won't happen overnight when they take power.
"I think it is important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity," Boehner said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who survived a tea party challenge in Nevada, said "I'm ready for some tweaking" on the health care law but would fight its repeal.
In the heady election aftermath, some Republicans cautioned their own that they have work to do in building public trust in a time when many Americans are fed up with both parties.
"We've been given a second chance and a golden opportunity," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, No. 2 Republican in the House. But, he added, "People want to see results." He called for discretionary spending to be cut to 2008 levels, including defense, and for a reduction in the federal payroll.
Sizing up the power shift, Reid said he wants to preserve Obama's sweeping health care law and let taxes rise on upper income Americans, but "I'm not bullheaded."
"If we need to work something out with the people who are really rich, I'll have to look at that," he said on CNN. "If there's some tweaking we need to do with the health care bill, I'm ready for some tweaking. But I'm not going to in any way denigrate the great work we did as a country, and saving America from bankruptcy because of the insurance industry bankrupting us."
Republican Rand Paul, who won a Kentucky Senate seat in a race powered by tea party support, said Americans need not fear gridlock in the next Congress because "debate is healthy."
"It seems like the most fiscally conservative government is always divided government," Paul said on NBC's "Today" show.
At the White House the morning after, senior Obama aides were staying silent so that Obama himself would have the first say, at a 1 p.m. EDT news conference.
Obama called Boehner to congratulate him late Tuesday. He also spoke with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and top Democrats in a series of conversations that reflected the shifting balance of power.
Incomplete returns showed the GOP picked up at least 60 House seats and led for four more, far in excess of what was needed for a majority. About two dozen races remained too close to call.
On their night of triumph, Republicans also gained at least six Senate seats, and tea party favorites Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Marco Rubio in Florida were among their winners.
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