Republicans vow to reduce size of government
Washington – President Barack Obama faced America's new political order with a call for compromise, following what he described as a Democratic "shellacking" in US elections. But there were already signs of political battles ahead.
Republicans, fresh from capturing the House of Representatives on Tuesday, claimed a mandate to shrink the size of government and roll back Obama's signature health care overhaul.
"Change course we will," said Republican House leader John Boehner, likely the chamber's next speaker.
Obama, appearing sombre at a news conference, took responsibility for the weak economic recovery, the central issue in Tuesday's elections. But he offered few regrets about his policies and suggested he would co-operate with Republicans when possible and confront them when not.
"No one party will be able to dictate where we go from here," he said.
By winning the House and making gains in the Senate, Republicans will have the power to block Obama's agenda in the final two years of his term, reshaping America's political climate in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Tuesday's vote marked a stunning change from 2008, when Obama's popularity helped Democrats expand their majorities in both chambers of Congress. This time, candidates who backed his economic stimulus and health care policies were among the most vulnerable.
Among the blocs that the Democrats have to win back are independent voters and people 65 and older.
Exit polls of voters indicate that 56% of independents and 59% of seniors voted for Republican House candidates, with each delivering decisive margins of roughly 20 percentage points for the Republicans.
For seniors, a group that takes voting seriously, Obama's health care overhaul legislation was a driving issue. More than half said the measure should be repealed.
Independents seemed especially upset with Obama and took it out on Democrats, voting Republican for the first time since 1998. Over half said the president's policies will hurt the country.
Obama, who had campaigned on a theme of change, took responsibility for not doing enough to alter the ways of Washington, whether its hyper-partisanship or back-room dealing.
"We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things were done," he admitted.
Obama suggested new areas of co-operating, including taxes and energy policy. Obama virtually abandoned his climate change legislation – hopelessly stalled in the Senate – that featured economic incentives to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles and other sources.
Boehner, meanwhile, said the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives brings "a new majority" to Congress with a mandate to listen to the people.
Appearing with fellow Republicans at a news conference, Boehner said it's "time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work". He said the agenda the Republicans will push includes efforts to cut government spending and create jobs.
That echoed the unrelenting demand of ultraconservative tea party activists, whose energy and votes helped to fuel the largest turnover in the House in more than 70 years. The tea party is a loose-knit coalition of community groups largely made up of people with conservative and libertarian views.
Still, the Democrats are likely to stand and fight in Congress.
The Democrats still control the Senate, the upper legislative chamber, with at least 52 seats. Also, Obama still holds his veto power, and the Republicans do not have sufficient numbers to override it.
In results announced on Wednesday, Senator Michael Bennet narrowly defeated tea party-backed Republican Ken Buck to win a hard-fought Senate seat in Colorado. It had been viewed as a prime opportunity for the Republicans.
Two Senate races remained undecided: Alaska and Washington state.
Too close to call
Incomplete returns showed the Republican Party picked up at least 60 House seats and led for four more, far in excess of what was needed for a majority.
About two dozen races remained too close to call. The Republicans' victory eclipsed the 54-seat pickup by the so-called "revolution" that retook the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and the 56-seat Republican gain in 1946.
All 435 seats in the House were on Tuesday's ballot, plus 37 in the Senate. Also, 37 states chose governors.
Later this month, the current members, including those voted out of office, will go back to work to finish out their terms in what is known as a lame duck session.
The new Congress will begin its session in January. Aides said on Wednesday no decision has been made on the first bill that Republicans will take up in the new Congress, and party leaders put taxes and government spending ahead of health care repeal as priorities.
The party's repeal strategy is fluid.
Republicans could try to deny funds to carry out the law, which could backfire if it escalates to a government shutdown. They could use the oversight authority of Congress to slow down or block regulations, essentially tying up the instruction manual for the overhaul. Or Republican lawmakers may be able to pick off unpopular provisions.
The campaign to repeal the historic health care reform energised big-government foes in the congressional elections, helping turn out Republican voters. However, trying to deliver on it could stir up a backlash.
Exit polls on Election Day found voters divided. Forty-eight percent said they supported repealing the overhaul, but 47% said it should be expanded or kept as it is.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Obama nearly dared Republicans to follow through on their threat. Citing popular provisions of the law, such as help for the elderly with high prescription costs and guaranteed coverage for people with medical problems, the president said, "I don't think you'd have a strong vote for people saying... 'Those are provisions I want to eliminate'."