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House GOP urges Obama to join drive to cut spending

On the brink of power, House Republicans challenged President Obama on Tuesday to join them in a drive to cut federal spending, ban earmarks for favored projects and overhaul the nation's tax code.

At the same time, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., conceded the new GOP majority intends to bypass its own new rules when it votes next week to wipe out the health care law approved by Democrats in 2010.

"We just need to repeal it," Cantor said of the effort to fulfill one of the party's main campaign promises from last fall.

Republicans, their ranks expanded by tea party-backed freshmen, take control of the House when the 112th Congress convenes at noon today. One of the first orders of business will be the election of Ohio Republican John Boehner as speaker, replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

In a celebratory mood, House Republicans met for nearly three hours Tuesday as they looked ahead to their two-year term of office. GOP freshmen have emphasized the need to reduce the deficit, but there are limits to how far the caucus is willing to go. Ten-year veteran Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said his colleagues defeated his proposal to use savings from spending cuts only for deficit reduction, as opposed to shifting some money to other government programs.

Democrats retained their Senate majority in the November elections. But the 60 Senate seats they controlled two years ago -- enough to push through much of Obama's agenda -- will fall to 53.

That will make it harder to enact legislation Obama still seeks. But it gives them more than enough clout to block bills like the health care repeal.

Obama, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew home from a year-end vacation in Hawaii, predicted Republicans would "play to their [political] base" initially.

"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," he added.

He said the two sides can build on Congress' lame-duck session in December, when they agreed on a compromise to prevent income taxes from rising, extend unemployment benefits and enact a Social Security tax cut that took effect Saturday.

Cantor challenged and chided Obama at a news conference. He said the GOP envisions a "cut-and-grow majority" to reduce government spending and regulations and help the economy.

The first spending-cut vote is set for Thursday, a 5 percent reduction in the amount ticketed for lawmakers' and committees' offices as well as leadership staff. Aides estimated the savings at $35 million over the next nine months.

Republicans have pledged to vote on bills that cut spending at least once a week.

Obama is expected to deliver his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 25, and Cantor said he was "looking to see some significant spending cuts proposed by the president that we can work on together."

He said he hopes Obama will prevail on Senate Democrats to ban earmarks -- funds dedicated to specific pet projects of individual lawmakers.

"Tax reform could be a significant boost, and I'm hopeful and expecting the president" will speak on that subject as well, he added.

Cantor said he was "hopeful the president will re-evaluate his position on regulations."

Republicans argue that the economy suffers from over-regulation by the government, citing the health care bill.

Cantor's comments underscored the change that has occurred in the political landscape since the last election. Instead of merely opposing every Obama proposal, Republicans must compromise with him if they are to show results in their drive to cut spending.

One of the first votes today will be enactment of a series of rules changes that Republicans crafted to increase openness in Congress' proceedings.

Despite that commitment, Republicans intend to pass the health care repeal bill next week without committee hearings or permitting Democrats to seek changes.

They also have decided to ignore estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that the bill as it originally passed would cut spending by $143 billion over the next decade.

Cantor refused to acknowledge that repeal would increase deficits at a time Republicans have vowed to reduce red ink.

A group of Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, is expected to propose changes today that would make it harder for the minority to delay legislation by filibuster.

Republicans are opposed. "The brazenness of this proposed action is that Democrats are proposing to use the very tactics that in the past almost every Democratic leader has denounced, including President Obama and Vice President Biden," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said.

Pelosi, soon to become minority leader, declined to reflect on her four years as the first woman to preside over the House. "Actually, I don't really look back. I look forward," she said.

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