Now the Real Work Begins for the GOP

David Goldman / AP

It took a whopping two hours for TV-network analysts to state decisively that the era of Democratic dominance in Congress was over. Four years after Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, an ascendant GOP had managed to wrestle at least one back. Now, a fortified Republican caucus of at least 239 will take control of all House leadership positions, a major coup for a party considered dead at the ballot box twice over the past four years.

Once the victory parties are over and the helium has left the balloons in the ballrooms, it will be time to govern. "Our new majority will be prepared to do things differently, to take a new approach that hasn't been tried before in Washington—by either party," Rep. John Boehner, the presumed speaker, told supporters in a victory speech Tuesday night. Last week we examined what a GOP-controlled House would mean. Now, with the ballots counted, we look at the path for a party with newfound—but not unlimited—power:

Speaker of the House. The man with the enduring tan has been poised to be speaker for months, but it's not official yet. His ascension still relies on a vote of his caucus, perhaps complicated by several colleagues willing to publicly challenge Boehner for the top job. Still, it's hard to imagine Boehner, the man who has led House Republicans in stiff opposition to Obama and raised millions of dollars for fellow candidates, being passed over. Says one senior GOP staffer, "Not selecting Boehner would be like winning the World Series and then firing your manager."

Committee chairs.Late last month, NEWSWEEK reported on some of the high-profile committee heads standing ready to take the gavels: Jerry Lewis is poised for appropriations, Spencer Bachus for financial services, and Paul Ryan looks likely to take the reins of the budget committee. Yet the final decisions will still be made by the newly empowered Republican Steering Committee, which the new speaker will head. Look for that jockeying and the resulting announcements to come early next month, before new members are sworn in early in January.

Taxes.After the back-and-forth bickering throughout the election season, the first order of business when members return this month will be dealing with the Bush tax cuts. This is tricky because, technically, the lame-duck session of Congress will still have a dominant Democratic leadership, including several members who were voted out. Yet even though the GOP will remain the minority party until January, Democrats will have incentives to compromise. For one, Republicans will have wind at their backs and will claim a new national mandate. And another reason: Democrats have little reason to slight Republicans now. In just two months, they'll be in the minority, and Washington is the land of grudges.

Health-care reform.Tea Party candidates and Republicans in general campaigned on repealing health-care reform. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, two Tea Party darlings, promised to gut the law. This will not actually happen. The GOP's most aggressive option is to use the appropriations process to deny funding to agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service, both tasked with monitoring the implementation of the new health-care-reform law. It's more likely that Republicans will make a ruckus over the size and scope of the law. They won't be able to actually repeal it—a presidential veto and a Democratic Senate stand in their way—but calling repeated repeal votes in the House would push Democrats to defend the law constantly. As one appropriations staffer told NEWSWEEK last month, "most of our efforts [on repealing health care] will be symbolic."

Deficits.The size of the deficit has been growing for the past decade (mostly because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but this is the election in which it mattered. When the GOP convenes its new House majority and fiscally frugal freshmen such as Paul push to curb the deficit, party leaders will be left stuttering. Put simply: it can't be done. Or at least not without cutting a sweeping majority of all nondefense spending—as in, up to 90 percent—which neither party, especially not a GOP with a new responsibility to the broader public, wants to try during a struggling economic recovery. Real action on deficits is more likely to come from the president's fiscal commission, which will release a report early next month.

Small accomplishments. With two years to go before a high-stakes presidential election, Republicans will be eager to tout accomplishments, no matter how small. Between efforts to scale back health-care and financial reform, look for GOP leaders to push several benign and agreeable bills they talked about on the stump, including a "read the bill" provision requiring lawmakers to publicly post pieces of legislation 72 hours before each vote. That, and a test to ensure that every bill passes the strict test of constitutionality. Neither will do much to alter Washington or remake the legislative process. But to the folks back home, it may just be the kind of change they believed in.