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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.