After Big Gains, GOP Turns To What Comes Next

John Boehner and Eric Cantor are surrounded by cameras Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia (left), expected to be the next House majority leader, and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the speaker-in-waiting, talk Wednesday about the midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Brandon/AP

In the wee hours of Wednesday, Ohio GOP chairman Kevin DeWine captured the mood of his party after Republicans took over the governorship, retained a U.S. Senate seat and knocked off all five Democratic members of Congress they targeted in the Buckeye State.

"Two years ago, they said that our party was dead. They had written the obituary," he said. "Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I stand up here as the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and declare that the Republican Party is alive and well."

But DeWine also noted that the GOP had learned a lesson from its losses in 2006 and 2008. "They told us to clean up our act," he said. "They told us to act like Republicans. They told us to restore their trust."

Across the country Tuesday night, a recurring theme in Republican victory speeches was that the message has been received.

"What Americans are looking for desperately are people that will go to Washington, D.C., and stand up to this agenda that is taking us in the wrong direction," said Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, who coasted to victory in the Florida Senate race after taking on the GOP establishment in the primary.

That theme continued Wednesday in Washington, as Ohio Rep. John Boehner, expected to be speaker of the House when the GOP takes control, met with other Republican leaders in the Capitol.

"Our job is to listen to the American people and follow the will of the American people," Boehner said. "We've got a big job ahead of us, and that's why you see us roll up our sleeves and go to work today."

Setting An Agenda

So now the GOP is looking ahead, but it faces the same troubled economy and other issues that have bedeviled Democrats over the past two years. Boehner is assembling a transition team to build a specific agenda for the new House leadership — in addition to all the logistics of a shift of power in the Capitol.

"The first order of business has got to be create jobs," said Eric Cantor (R-VA), who is expected to be the next House majority leader. "And that means cut spending and get us back to an era in which we can promote opportunity."

Then there's the new health care law, which many Republican challengers ran against. It's clear that with Democrats still controlling the Senate and the White House, an all-out repeal is not likely. But Wednesday, Boehner signaled that there are other ways to inhibit the law's enactment.

"We have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that will bring down the cost of health insurance," he said.

Having the House majority isn't just about setting the agenda on the floor — it also means chairmanships and majorities on all the committees. It means having some say over the budget — including the funding for government agencies to enact the health care law. And there's more those committees can do — a lot more, Boehner said Wednesday.

"I think one of the things that Congress has not done a very good job of over the last 15 years is real oversight. And I'm not talking about 'gotcha' oversight, I'm talking about rock-solid oversight of the executive branch, which is a constitutional responsibility of the Congress," he said.

Under divided government, Americans can expect to see the Obama administration getting a lot more pressure and many more questions from Congress.

Tea Party Question Marks

While Republicans are facing an impatient voting public that wants results, they also have a new force within their ranks to contend with — a growing Tea Party caucus in Congress.

The question is: How will this new Tea Party caucus work with the GOP leadership? They will push the party to the right and will likely challenge some of the institutional traditions of the Congress.

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint helped many of the very conservative newcomers with campaign cash and endorsements. But he says he doesn't think their presence in Congress means there will be conflict within the ranks.

"We all run as conservatives. ... Everyone says we need to reform our tax code," he says. "It's just a matter of getting us all moving in ... the same direction because we're already saying the same things."

'We're Going To Listen To The People'

Republican strategist Mike Murphy says Republicans need to keep in mind that their victory Tuesday was a result of a well-run campaign. But also, Murphy says, "I think the election was mostly a negative referendum on President Obama and the Democrats."

Or, as one top aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell described it: Americans didn't elect a bunch of Republicans on Tuesday, they un-elected a bunch of Democrats.

Murphy has long cautioned against Republicans interpreting the unpopularity of Democrats as a validation of the GOP, which also suffers from very low approval ratings.

"Now that we've taken this power — it's been given to us by the American people — it comes with a responsibility," Murphy says.

Back in Ohio at Tuesday night's GOP celebration, Bob Gibbs, newly elected to represent Ohio's 18th District, said he feels the responsibility.

"We're going to listen to the people — that's for sure," he said. "You got a lot of Republicans coming into the Congress now that weren't there."

Gibbs said he sees it as a very different party — before adding, "It better be, or we're going to be kicked out of office, too."

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