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.
Instead of merely opposing Obama's every proposal, as they did in 2009 and 2010, Republicans must compromise with him if they are to show results in their drive to cut spending.
Yet their eagerness to vote quickly on repealing the health care bill is in line with a no-compromise position articulated by the tea party forces that helped propel many GOP challengers to victory.
Republicans have the votes to pass the health care repeal bill though the House. Yet the action is largely symbolic, since Democratic leaders have already pronounced it dead on arrival in the Senate.
And Democrats made it clear they intend to make the House vote as uncomfortable as possible for Republicans, too.
"Under the Republican repeal effort, insurance companies would once again be able to drop people when they get sick. Children with pre-existing conditions would be denied coverage," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. "Young people will not be able to stay on their parents' insurance until they're age 26. Pregnant women and breast cancer survivors could be denied coverage. Seniors will face an increase in their prescription drug costs, millions thrown back into the Medicare Part D doughnut hole."
One of the first votes on Wednesday will be enactment of a series of rules changes that Republicans crafted to increase openness in Congress' proceedings.
Despite the commitment, Republicans intend to pass the health care bill next week without committee hearings or permitting Democrats a chance to seek changes.
They also have decided to ignore estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that the bill as it originally passed would cut spending by $143 billion over the next decade.
Cantor refused to acknowledge that repeal would increase deficits at a time Republicans have vowed to reduce red ink.
"Everyone knows . this bill has the potential to bankrupt the federal government and the states," he said, although he cited no estimates.
He said there would be open hearings and Democrats would be allowed to seek changes when Republicans draft an alternative health care bill. No timetable has been set.