US & Canada

Six things you need to know about the new Congress

John Boehner
Image caption Like speakers before him, Mr Boehner has promised a more inclusive and transparent House

The 112th US Congress is being sworn in in Washington, two months after mid-term elections which saw President Obama's Democratic Party suffer heavy losses at the hands of the Republicans. Republicans now control the House of Representatives for the first time in more than four years, while the Democrats have only a slim lead in the Senate.

Congressional sessions are rarely predictable - in January 2009, few anticipated that the Democrats, with significant majorities in both houses and a president with favourability ratings in the 70s, would have such a challenging time getting legislation passed.

We do know one thing though: Republicans will be focused on the budget, taxes and spending - and the stage is set for an ideological battle. Here are a few tips on what to watch for.

The man to watch: Darrell Issa

Image caption Mr Issa is poised to become one of the most powerful players on Capitol Hill

Darrell Issa's face is one Americans should get accustomed to seeing in 2011. The conservative Californian millionaire, who made his fortune selling car alarms, will assume the chairmanship of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

What does that mean? Mostly, that he has the power to run probing investigations into almost anything the Obama administration does, and to call senior administration officials to testify before him.

Republicans used this committee to great effect during the Clinton administration, issuing more than 1,500 subpoenas in their investigations of alleged Democratic misconduct.

Mr Issa's tenure promises to be just as active. "I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks," he told news website Politico. He's already called the Obama administration "one of the most corrupt".

A list of his targets in his first three months has already surfaced - Wikileaks, corruption in Afghanistan, the financial crisis and links between government regulation and job creation are included. He is also soliciting ideas from big business about what he should investigate.

The investigations are bound to be high profile and broad-ranging, forcing key Obama administration officials to play defence.

It's unclear whether he will uncover anything that damages the White House, but having Mr Issa consume time and news cycles will no doubt be frustrating for the Obama administration.

The big assault: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Image caption The two big mortgage backers will come under the microscope in 2011

These names are barely known outside the US, but in conservative circles here - particularly in the Tea Party movement - they are synonymous with the financial crisis. Like the financial crisis itself, their role is complex.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government-backed institutions which purchase mortgages in the secondary mortgage market (that is, from lenders like banks), which they then either hold or securitize.

Prompted by the policy priorities of the Clinton administration, Fannie and Freddie began to expand their acquisition of loans in low income areas. This policy of increasing America's home ownership rates continued through the Bush administration.

Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit, fuelled in part by people who could not afford their mortgages.

Mr Issa plans to investigate the two mortgage giants. Many Republicans want to see government support for them withdrawn entirely, forcing their collapse.

Politically, attacking Fannie and Freddie will help sate the angry conservative base, which will continue to use them as examples of the folly of government intervention.

Get used to hearing these names.

The headline-grabbing fizzer: healthcare repeal

Image caption The White House fought hard for healthcare reform, and will fight harder to keep it

Republicans across the country made repealing "Obamacare" a central part of their mid-term election platform. This week they intend to deliver.

Unfortunately for them, success will probably be elusive. Although they have the numbers to repeal the legislation in the House - where the first vote will take place - they are still in the minority in the Senate.

It is unclear whether a repeal bill would make it to the Senate floor, and even then, Democrats seem poised to hold firm in their support of it.

Even those who were skittish about initially supporting the bill will find it very difficult to oppose it this time around, especially as its popularity with the Democratic base grows.

But even if the Senate voted for repeal, Mr Obama would veto it.

In short, the repeal is theatre - the repeal bill even refers to the healthcare reform as the "job-killing" bill.

For Republicans, though, it's important theatre, showing that they are following through on promises.

They will probably later attempt to repeal segments of the bill or to deny it necessary funding. Both endeavours have dubious prospects of success.

Also, whether Republicans are prepared to lose more time battling over healthcare is not a certainty, especially when most Americans want government to focus on the economy and job creation.

The question mark: the Tea Party

Image caption The Tea Party movement is hard to define, making it an unpredictable political force

The Tea Party is the big unknown of 2011.

After bursting onto the political scene in 2009, Tea Party backed candidates won numerous seats in the house and several in the Senate in the mid-term elections.

It is already clear that they will have at least a symbolic impact on congressional Republicans. The vote on repealing healthcare reform, the reading of the Constitution aloud in Congress and a requirement that each new bill cite the constitutional provision that would allow it to be enacted are early signs of the Tea Party's influence.

But will it be able to meaningfully shape policy or will it be co-opted by the party's powerbrokers? Do members of the nascent Tea Party caucus even agree with each other? Will it force Republicans further to the right, focusing on issues that alienate mainstream conservatives?

This is the new movement's first taste of Washington power. Watching what it does with it could be fascinating. But it could just as easily peter out, melting into DC's overcrowded stage.

The thing making Democrats nervous: 2012

Senate Democrats had a rough time in the mid-terms, losing six seats and failing to win any that had looked like easy pick-ups in 2009. And all that happened with 19 mostly safe Democratic seats up for re-election.

The 2012 landscape looks very different - and deeply troubling - for Senate Democrats. They have 23 sitting senators, many of whom are vulnerable, up for re-election, as well as three sometimes sympathetic Republicans - Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown and Richard Lugar.

The possibility of another blood-letting will shape the Democratic caucus in interesting and pivotal ways.

Some Democrats - particularly those in vulnerable seats such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jim Webb in Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana, Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida - may push for a centrist tack, reflecting the anti-Washington mood of the country.

Others, like Sherrod Brown in Ohio, might be hoping for Democratic legislative wins to fire up their base.

Almost all of these incumbents will hope that the president's massive fundraising and voter turnout apparatus is used in their favour come November 2012, and will be thus disinclined to stand up to the White House.

These competing interests pull Senate Democrats in different ways, and may end up making for a very cautious caucus. Regardless, those 23 nervous Democrats will spend most of this term with their eyes on 2012, and will be an important influence.

The word to know: Filibuster

Democrats saw many of their legislative hopes in 2010 thwarted by the filibuster, a procedural tactic that essentially prevents the Senate from voting on legislation until 60 out of 100 senators have agreed to allow the vote.

Republicans became masters of the filibuster in the last session, basically ensuring that every significant bill needed 60 votes to pass.

The filibuster has raised the ire of majority parties for years. Its rules have been relaxed over time, and now Democrats are seriously considering attempting to alter them again to make passing bills easier.

The general public is rarely interested in such arcane procedural discussions, but filibuster reform will provoke a feisty debate in Washington circles and could significantly alter the delicate power balance on Capitol Hill.

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