WASHINGTON —Republicans on Thursday began planning strategy for the next Congress by vowing to be unified and relentless in their insistence that this year's health care overhaul be repealed and that most domestic spending be frozen or cut drastically.
At the White House, President Obama said his administration was ready to work across party lines in a fresh attempt to "focus on the economy and jobs" as well as attack waste in government. In a show of bipartisanship, he invited top lawmakers to the White House at mid-month, and the nation's newly elected governors two weeks later.
The GOP, which gained at least 60 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate in Tuesday's election, showed no appetite for bipartisan cooperation.
"The mandate for change is directed at the other guys," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We are right where we have been."
Where they've been for the past two years is marching mostly in lockstep on issues central to the Republican platform, such as health care, global warming and spending — and against the Democrats' agenda.
Don't look for much change, GOP leaders said.
They'll want Bush-era tax cuts extended permanently. "The best thing we could do for families and job creation is to extend the current rates as soon as possible for as long as possible," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who is expected to chair the House Ways and Means Committee.
They'll want votes on repealing the health care overhaul, even though they know that Obama would veto any repeal.
McConnell conceded that his party won't be successful right away on health care. But, he said, "We can compel administration officials to attempt to defend this indefensible health spending bill and other costly, government-driven measures.
"We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve, while at the same time recognizing that realism should never be confused with capitulation," the Kentucky senator said.
"We can — and should — propose and vote on straight repeal, repeatedly," McConnell told an audience Thursday at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But we can't expect the president to sign it. So we'll also have to work, in the House, on denying funds for implementation, and, in the Senate, on votes against its most egregious provisions."
Because funding for many provisions in the law is authorized but not appropriated, James Gelfand, health policy director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said there'd be numerous opportunities for Republicans to hold up the funding train.
In his speech, McConnell said the only way to achieve key party legislative goals such as ending government bailouts, cutting spending and repealing the health care law "is to put someone in the White House who won't veto" them.
"There's just no getting around it," he added.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, in line to become the new speaker of the House, brushed aside talk that the No. 1 GOP goal was to make sure Obama is defeated at the polls in 2012. "That's Senator McConnell's statement and his opinion," he told ABC, referring to the party's leader in the Senate and adding that his own goals included cutting spending and creating jobs.
Obama has ruled out accepting repeal of the health care measure, and Senate Democrats responded quickly to McConnell.
"What Sen. McConnell is really saying is, 'Republicans want to let insurance companies go back to denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, let them go back to charging women twice as much for the same coverage as men, and let them push millions of seniors back into the Medicare doughnut hole,' " said Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"Republicans have always been the party of putting big business over the middle class," said Manley, "and they are wasting no time in trying to jam through favors for big corporations at the expense of hard-working families who are struggling to make ends meet."
Tea party caution
Analysts warned that Republicans need to be careful with tea party backers.
"This is trouble for the party," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. He found about one-third of Republican voters say they're not tea party people, while another third are Republican but "really think of myself as a tea party person."
The final third says, "I'm a Republican and tea party, but when you ask, I think myself more as a Republican."
The danger to the GOP is that a rift might emerge between tea party purists and more established Republican lawmakers schooled in compromise.
As part of that push, one of his party's major themes will be to build a case that Democrats are woefully out of touch.
That's particularly important to the tea party loyalists.
"Believe me, they're in a no-compromise stance," said McInturff. "They don't want engagement with the president, they don't want to work across party lines, they want now-former Speaker Pelosi's agenda totally and irrevocably stopped and reversed."
McConnell, in his speech, had a warning to Republicans not to get too haughty: "Voters didn't suddenly fall in love with Republicans; they fell out of love with Democrats."