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.
—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.
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.
"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.