Five US Congress flashpoints: Republicans pick their battles

From healthcare to congressional hearings, Chris McGreal analyses the expected battlegrounds

Barack Obama
Barack Obama signs the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in Kailua, Hawaii. Photograph: Handout/Getty Images

Barack Obama faces a divided legislature, with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and the Democrats grappling with a slimmer majority in the Senate. The principal battleøgrounds are expected to be:

The new Republican leadership in the house has focused on Obama’s healthcare reforms as a fruitful area of assault. The party claims that its victories in November’s elections were a repudiation of laws broadening access to healthcare for most Americans. Republican leaders say they intend to bring in legislation within days to overturn reforms they say are unconstitutional, an intrusion on individual liberty and will increase US debt.
Any house bill to repeal healthcare legislation is unlikely to get through the Senate, but Republicans see value in the fight. They also plan to attack the reforms piecemeal by using legislation to withhold funding.
Republican leaders are counting on the support of conservative Democrats under pressure from constituents opposed to the reforms – but the showdown may play into the president’s hands. Democrats are counting on a shift in opinion in favour of the reforms as benefits kick in. Obama has said he will veto any attempt to kill off the healthcare plan, and it is likely to be a core part of his re-election campaign.
Government spending

A key issue to Tea Partiers. Republicans in the house are expected to hold a largely symbolic vote this week to cut congressional office spending by 5%. But it will set the tone for a leadership which has pledged to cut back on government, reducing taxes, spending and the regulation of businesses.
Some incoming Republicans have threatened not to increase the limit on government borrowing – presently set at $14.3 trillion, with the cap being rapidly approached – when it comes to a vote in the spring, unless there are sharp cuts in government spending. The White House council of economic advisers has warned that would mean “defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history”.

Republicans are sworn to block environmental legislation, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions from powerplants and factories which are portrayed as bad for the economy and unconstitutional. The incoming chairman of the house energy committee, Fred Upton, has said that he will “not allow” the White House to use its powers to set restrictions on emissions on the grounds that the technology does not exist for businesses to curb them.

Republicans will push for even tighter border controls and are opposed to an amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. They favour a further extension to the 700-mile wall along the Mexican border intended to curb the flow of drugs and people, and secure against terrorist infiltration.
Congressional hearings

Republicans plan to use their control of congressional committees to launch investigations they hope will embarrass the White House – from probes into healthcare reform to policies on Guantánamo Bay. Among the other issues on the list are the recent WikiLeaks revelations, corruption in Afghanistan, and Obama’s handling of the meltdown of the banks. Republicans intend to force administration officials to testify in the hope that it will produce politically damaging revelations during Obama’s re-election campaign.

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