Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — On the brink of power, House Republicans challenged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to join them in a drive to cut federal spending, ban earmarks for favored projects and overhaul the nation's tax code.
At the same time, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., conceded the new GOP majority intends to bypass its own new rules when it votes next week to wipe out the health care law approved by Democrats in 2010.
"We just need to repeal it," Cantor said of the effort to fulfill one of the party's main campaign promises from last fall.
Republicans, their ranks expanded by tea party-backed freshmen, take control of the House when the 112th Congress convenes at noon on Wednesday. One of the first orders of business will be the election of Ohio Republican John Boehner as speaker, replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
In a celebratory mood, House Republicans met for nearly three hours during the day as they looked ahead to their two-year term of office. GOP freshmen have emphasized the need to reduce the deficit, but there are limits to how far the caucus is willing to go. Ten-year veteran Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said his colleagues defeated his proposal to use savings from spending cuts only for deficit reduction, as opposed to shifting some money to other government programs.
Across the Capitol, Democrats retained their majority in the November elections. But the 60 Senate seats they controlled two years ago — enough to push through much of Obama's agenda — will fall to 53.
That will make it harder to enact legislation Obama still seeks. But it gives them more than enough clout to block passage of bills like the health care repeal that House Republicans desire.
Obama, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew home from a year-end vacation in Hawaii, predicted Republicans would "play to their (political) base" initially.
He added, "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."
He said the two sides can build on the lame duck session of Congress in December, when they agreed on a compromise to prevent income taxes from rising, to extend unemployment benefits and to enact a Social Security tax cut that took effect on Saturday.
Cantor challenged and chided Obama by turn in a news conference in which he said the GOP envisions a "cut and grow majority" to reduce government spending and regulations and benefit the economy.
The first spending cut vote is set for Thursday, a 5 percent reduction in the amount ticketed for lawmakers' and committees' offices as well as leadership staff. Aides estimated the savings at $35 million over the next nine months.
Republicans have pledged to vote on bills that cut spending at least once a week.
Obama is expected to deliver his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 25, and Cantor said he was "looking to see some significant spending cuts proposed by the president that we can work on together."
He also said he hopes Obama will prevail on Senate Democrats to ban earmarks, which are funds dedicated to specific pet projects of individual lawmakers.
He added, "Tax reform could be a significant boost . and I'm hopeful and expecting the president" will speak on that subject as well. Cantor also said he was "hopeful the president will re-evaluate his position on regulations."
Republicans argue that the economy suffers from over-regulation by the government, highlighting the health care bill as one example.
Cantor's comments underscored the change that has occurred in the political landscape since the last election.
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