President Barack Obama swaps serene Hawaii for the partisan hurly-burly of Washington Tuesday, with empowered Republicans maneuvering to strangle his health care law and stall his new momentum.
Obama will return from holiday a day before Republicans formally take possession of the House of Representatives on Wednesday after their November mid-term election victory ushered in a new era of divided government in the US capital.
An enthused freshman class of conservative lawmakers is streaming to Washington convinced that voters gave them a mandate to rein in Obama’s presidency, slash government spending and repeal the historic Democratic health care law.
Obama said he expected Republicans will try to stall his reforms but downplayed the partisan bickering and said he hoped his opponents will work with him to improve the battered economy.
“I think that there’s going to be politics, that’s what happens in Washington,” Obama told reporters on Air Force One after departing the island state of Hawaii where he spent 11 days on holiday with his family.
“They are going to play to their base for a certain period of time, but I’m pretty confident that they’re going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we’re creating a competitive economy for the 21st century — not just for this generation, but the next one.”
Republican zeal will clash with Obama’s own restored political vigor, after his string of late 2010 political wins confounded narratives of a diminished presidency. Big rows are expected over government debt and spending.
Senior House Republicans meanwhile are relishing the chance to mount a flurry of investigations against top White House officials, with Obama’s 2012 reelection race on the horizon.
Speculation is also swirling about a turnover in Obama’s inner circle, with reports Monday suggesting he was considering veteran Democratic operative William Daley as chief of staff or for another job.
Even before Obama arrives back at the White House, senior Republicans sent clear signals that the president would face a sapping two-year battle to secure his previous legislative triumphs.
A Republican spokesman said the new House would vote next week to repeal Obama’s signature health care reform, which provided near universal coverage and regulated insurance firms.
“ObamaCare is a job killer for businesses small and large, and the top priority for House Republicans is going to be to cut spending and grow the economy and jobs,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for Republican Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor.
Though the health care repeal vote will grab headlines, it is largely symbolic as Democrats still control the Senate, though with a reduced majority, and Obama can wield his presidential veto.
Knowing repeal is unlikely, Republicans will seek to slow implementation of the health care reform act, the most sweeping social legislation in decades, by choking funds earmarked for it.
Next week’s vote will provide an early rallying point for a Republican Party in Washington which is feeling the influx of new members riding a wave of ultra-conservative Tea Party grass roots activism.
Party leaders, though profiting from the new conservative zeal, must also balance pressure to tackle issues like the need to raise the US government debt ceiling in March and to frame a governing budget.
Such ventures may demand unpalatable compromises with Obama which would be unpopular with their core supporters, if they are to avert a government shutdown which could alienate many voters.
Obama will face assaults on multiple fronts.
Representative Fred Upton, who takes over as chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, vowed at the weekend to ensure tough oversight and “bring up spending reductions virtually every week.”
Representative Darrell Issa, incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee warned of a constant battle over jobs and the economy and called the Obama administration “one of the most corrupt.”