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. 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. [See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.