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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