Powerful Arguments

In the new House, Republicans sound like Democrats—and vice versa.

John Boehner is taking over Nancy Pelosi’s old role as speaker of the House

The Capitol was quiet the day before the official change in power. Before noon, the House chamber was empty but for a new member showing his family the floor. There were no rambling school tours, just a small group of Chinese tourists (presumably checking on their investment). But the leaders of the two parties were there. Nancy Pelosi, on her last day as speaker, walked with the middle-distance stare of the powerful. Her successor, John Boehner, didn’t have the same look. His eyes met those of the people he passed as he headed outside. A dozen staffers and security walked with him. In the empty halls, they looked like a school of Gray Suit fish.

It was a twilight day. Power has transferred, but the titles haven’t yet. At a press conference Pelosi was as determined as her walk. “I don’t really look back. I look forward,” she said when asked to reflect on her speakership. Steny Hoyer, No. 2 in the Democratic leadership, was less formal. He congratulated Eric Cantor, the Republican who now holds his job as majority leader, for “taking a title I really liked having. You can keep calling me that if you want.” Later, Hoyer held a briefing just before Cantor was scheduled to have one in the fancier offices that the majority gets. Hoyer joked to reporters that he would cut his remarks short so they wouldn’t miss Cantor. “You’ll want to hear what’s really going on,” he said.

The parties have switched not only offices but arguments. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Republicans were going to spend “countless hours trying to repeal health care reform rather than focusing on jobs, the economy and deficit reduction. 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.” If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because it was a Republican refrain during the House’s debate over health care in 2009 and 2010.

Sometimes this required the Democrats to contradict themselves. They complained that the GOP House effort to repeal health care was a meaningless show because the Democratic Senate will never allow such a measure to proceed. But when defending their record on economic issues from the last session, they pointed to bills they passed that they knew would never get past a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats also complained that the Republicans were adding to the deficit and have shut them out of the legislative process. Next week, when the House votes to repeal health care (or, “job-killing health care,” as they call it), Democrats will not be allowed to add amendments. They were also not allowed to participate in writing the rules under which the measure will be considered. Democrats did this kind of thing when they were in power, of course, but they say Republicans had pledged to be more open and transparent.

This exchange of complaints is as fundamental to the institution as its marble steps. I asked Cantor about all this at his press conference. For the last several months Republicans have retold the story of Cantor’s debate over the stimulus bill with President Obama early in 2009, in which the president ended the discussion by saying, “I won.” Republicans viewed that as proof he had no intention of working with them in earnest. Why shouldn’t House Democrats take the same message from the GOP now?

“We’re not taking that attitude,” said Cantor. He then explained why the repeal vote should go forward under strict rules, and it sounded like a longer version of the answer Obama had given him. The issue “has been litigated according to the American people, if you look at the polling on this,” he said. “What the American people are saying, by the outcome of this election, is ‘we don’t like this outside-the-mainstream agenda that we’ve seen coming out of Washington over the last two years.’ ” In other words: We won.

When the Republicans start working on their replacement health care bill, “that will be a process of openness,” he said, which can only succeed if the two parties work together. From his side, Hoyer said bipartisan cooperation is not a cliché, but will be a requirement. It’s the only way a Republican House can work with a Democratic Senate and president. Republican Tea Party backers will have to get over that. “My presumption is that they don’t have happy families,” said Hoyer of Tea Party absolutists. “Life is about trying to reach accommodation with each other.”

Cantor had called his press conference to outline a governing philosophy for the new majority. The GOP will focus on creating jobs and cutting spending. The catchphrase for the 112th Congress is “cut and grow,” which sounds like a lawn service jingle (it is, in fact). He reiterated the pledge to cut spending by $100 billion to 2008 levels for nondefense spending but would also include defense cuts. “Everyone is going to have to do more with less,” said Cantor. Democrats have said the repeal of health care already undermined GOP pledges of fiscal austerity because the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation saved $140 billion over 10 years. Cantor said the nonpartisan office’s calculations were inaccurate. (Which is why House Republicans justify going around their own new accounting rules.)

Cantor was less specific about voting to raise the debt limit. He ducked the question of whether he would vote to raise it. GOP leaders are not going to allow the U.S. government to default, but they would rather delay a possible fight with Tea Party activists, and the members they love, who oppose raising the limit. On the eve of the biggest GOP majority in 70 years, why test whether Hoyer is right about the chance for happiness and harmony in the GOP family?

Correction, Jan. 5, 2010: Due to an editing error, the original photo caption in the piece referred to Pelosi and Boehner as, respectively, the outgoing and incoming majority leaders.Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.