Congress set for a frantic 20 days as Republicans announce their comeback

Republicans set to launch plans to cut spending and overturn health-care reform as they take charge

A new year, a new Congress, and a whole new set of political leaders who are about to become very familiar indeed. Gone are the days of Speaker Pelosi: this afternoon John Boehner of Ohio will take up the gavel, becoming the 61st Speaker of the House of Representatives at the helm of a newly energised Republican majority.

On Boehner's shoulders now hangs the weight of expectation. The conservative activists who fired up those Tea Party rallies are expecting big changes, while the reality of governing involves a degree of co-operation, at least, with the White House, and across the political aisle.

But the GOP isn't on the sidelines any longer, and it certainly isn't wasting any time trying to tear down the key planks of Barack Obama's agenda.

From the moment the Republicans take control of the House at noon today, never mind the first 100 days, there's a plan for their first 20 days in power. First up is the first in what's expected to be a huge raft of spending cuts, back to 2008 levels, though perhaps not quite as much as the initial $100bn cuts that "A Pledge to America" promised – starting with Congress itself.

There'll be a vote on Thursday on a proposal to slash the money Congress spends on its own expenses by more than $35m – reducing salaries, office expenditure and even the size of committees. In a statement, Boehner's office described the cuts as "bringing to the people's House the humility and modesty our constituents are expecting from us". It's not just about austerity measures – this is a sign that the Republicans mean to cut the size of government, and a message that, after years on the outside looking in, they can be trusted to run things again.

The 20-day agenda doesn't allow much time to pause for breath. On Friday it's straight on to the Republicans' other key election pledge – rolling back Obama's flagship health-care reforms.

They've already scheduled a vote to repeal the entire policy – next Wednesday – a two-page declaration that will be largely symbolic at best. It'll be followed by a vote, most probably in the next two weeks, on the GOP alternative. House Republicans might well approve, but it's unlikely to get anywhere in the Senate – and even if it did, President Obama would wield his veto. "The president is pretty confident about defending health care," a White House spokesman said.

Of course, wielding a veto could depict the Democrats as the party trying to frustrate the people's will. As the new majority leader, Eric Cantor, put it: "The Senate can serve as a cul-de-sac if that's what it wants to be, but again, it will have to answer to the American people."

But going for health care from the get-go could offer the Democrats a chance to make some political capital: they claim that trying to repeal the health-care reforms, plus that promise to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy and middle-class earners, will simply add trillions of dollars to the deficit the Republicans have promised to reduce. The Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told Slate: "Every minute wasted on trying to repeal health-care reform fruitlessly is one less minute the Republicans will spend on job creation and turning this economy around."

But this is the Republicans' moment. It is they who now control the House, and its powerful committees, from Appropriations to Oversight. As he returned to a very different Washington last night, Obama conceded that his rivals wouldn't be interested in much working together, to begin with at least – though he urged both parties to join forces in building the economic recovery.

But, for Speaker Boehner and his new cohort of Republican leaders, the first 20 days are their chance to make their mark. "Tough choices are neccessary to help our economy get back to creating jobs and end the spending binge in Washington that threatens our children's future," says the playbook. Politically, GOP strategists say it's now up to Boehner to make his party all about smaller government, fiscal conservatism and political reform.

Controlling the House, though, isn't everything – and if the Tea Party and other conservative activists who helped sweep the GOP to victory in November hope for too much, they could end up disappointed. A close friend of Boehner's, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, has cautioned that the newly elected ranks of Republicans, relishing their biggest majority in 70 years, are hoping for the skies: "Gee whiz, it's not going to be easy," he said. "We have a bunch of those House guys who are really on fire."

However, there's still a Democrat in the White House, with an economy still in serious trouble and laws that need to be passed. By all three branches of government. Let the Republicans enjoy their moment, as that gavel bangs down on the opening of the 112th Congress. But Washington, after all, is nothing if not a place of pragmatism.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.