WASHINGTON — When the 112th Congress convenes on Jan. 5, it will have a decidedly new look, a feisty new attitude and a penchant for partisanship.
Republicans will have their biggest House of Representatives majority since the Truman administration in the late 1940s, and, they believe, a mandate to slash spending dramatically and overturn President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law.
But their chances of success are dim, since Democrats will still control the White House and the Senate. That makes the potential for getting serious work done in 2011 difficult to predict.
"The 112th Congress is going to be a mix of cooperation and conflict, "said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
First will come the conflict, thanks to a new Republican army with dozens of new members, elected with the backing of the conservative Tea Party movement and pledging to adhere to a 45-page list of fresh GOP promises. Their top priorities are repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law and dramatically slashing federal spending.
Rumblings from congressional veterans suggest that the bipartisanship that helped Congress approve tax cuts and repeal of the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy in December is likely to crumble quickly, at least early in the year.
"There's a real question of where this Republican majority will reach out, and they've had a policy of no from the get-go," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., a 34-year House veteran.
"They saw it work one-third of the way in November," he said, referring to the GOP's gaining 63 House seats.
Republicans are enthusiastic about prospects for getting the other two-thirds in 2012. Twenty-three of the Senate seats up for re-election that year are held by Democrat caucus members and 10 are now in Republican hands.
And, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky this fall, "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
House Republicans are eager to provide a sharp counterpoint to Obama.
"President Obama may set the agenda for here in Washington," said Ohio Rep. John Boehner, who will become Speaker of the House, "but the American people will set our agenda in terms of what we do here in the House."
Boehner, generally considered less rigidly conservative than the Tea Party loyalists, is talking tough so far. He will lead a House where Republicans will have a 242 to 193 majority.
The House is likely to drive the early agenda next year, as outlined in the party's "Pledge to America," and focus on the budget and health care.
"If we actually want to help our economy get back on track and begin creating jobs, we need to end the job-killing spending binge," Boehner said. The Pledge promises to roll back most spending to levels of two to three years ago. Votes would be held each week on specific cuts, but there would be "common sense exceptions for seniors, veterans and our troops."
Other than a promise to cut Congress' own budget, there are few specifics about reductions, though the Pledge says its initiatives would save at least $100 billion in the first year.
"That will be a task for all our committees and members as we move forward," said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. "There is not one big list."
Cutting spending means some hard political choices.
One of the 2010 lame duck session's few major lapses was an inability to agree on a comprehensive federal budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Instead, lawmakers approved a stopgap funding measure that runs through March 4.
That date looms as a key date for a spending showdown, since the new House majority will be eager to show it's serious about spending cuts.
"Look at the people who are coming to the House. These aren't New England moderates," said Steven Greene, associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
That group is also eager to effect significant changes in the health care law.
"We will immediately take action to repeal this law," the Pledge promises.
But few expect any radical budget or health care changes to survive intact in the Senate, where Democrats will have a 53 to 47 majority, enough to block what Democrats might see as Republican overreaching. Even if a pet GOP program passes, Obama is hardly expected to sign legislation overturning the health care law or decimating social programs.
"The House is going to pass a lot of bills that will die in the Senate," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Whether much will get done will depend on everyone's willingness to compromise. The White House sat down with congressional leaders from both parties, and worked out a deal with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the very wealthy, for two years.
Liberal Democrats howled, and many conservatives thought the rates should have been made permanent.
As 2011 begins, the left is seething and conservatives are emboldened. Get ready for a few months of sharp rhetoric, said the experts, perhaps followed by calm and compromise.
"We can get some good work done here," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Added Cardin, "the Senate's prepared for the system to work."
But first, said former Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn, now the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, "It's going to be a test of wills."
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