Reporting from Washington — With election returns streaming in Tuesday night and Republicans within reach of retaking the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the question will soon turn to what they intend to do with the political might they've feverishly worked to regain.
The GOP needed to gain 39 seats to take over the House for the first time since 2006 — and early results from races in pivotal districts in Indiana, Virginia and Florida suggested the party would achieve and probably surpass that goal, though it was too early to declare a history-making rout.
But campaigning and governing are vastly different missions — a lesson that was imparted to congressional Democrats in this midterm election. All year, Republican candidates have run against the polices set forth by the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Now, should the GOP prevail, many of those candidates would be charged with legislating, rather than tossing barbs at the opposition.
It promises to challenge the would-be GOP speaker of the House, likely Ohio's John A. Boehner, who would preside over what could be an unruly majority, filled with a bevy of first-time candidates who have vowed to shrink the size of government, curtail federal spending and repeal the healthcare overhaul President Obama made a centerpiece of his agenda.
At the same time, Boehner and the GOP will be tasked with keeping the government running, an issue that could surface early if the lame-duck Congress fails to pass a sweeping funding measure in the next month.
"He's got to figure out how to put together a majority that can vote to fund the government," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. Many of the new members "will be allergic to spending votes."
Should the Republican wave result in a pickup of more than 50 seats, Boehner will have some breathing room. He'll also would probably be able to attract moderate Democrats — that is, the ones who survive Tuesday's election — who will be eager to demonstrate their conservative credentials.
"There's an opportunity to put together a pretty broad bipartisan coalition," Weber said.
But gridlock is also a possibility — especially considering that the Senate was expected to remain Democratic and that Obama will be in the White House, ready to veto any bill that threatens his agenda. For that reason, a complete repeal of the healthcare legislation is unlikely, although that won't stop the Republicans from bringing the issue to the floor.
Jim Kessler, an analyst with Third Way, a centrist think-tank in Washington, said there is an opportunity for Obama and the GOP to find common ground on some issues, including the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year, as well as a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education mandate and a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea.
"There will be a tension between doing something and doing nothing, and being affirmative and being negative," Kessler said. "There will be tremendous pressure to just say, 'No.' "
Kessler argues that it's in the best interests of Boehner and the GOP to attempt to work with Obama in advance of the 2012 presidential campaign and not cave in to the demands of its "tea party" faction. "Republicans should realize the zenith of the tea party was yesterday," Kessler said.
Boehner has made reducing the deficit and cutting spending early priorities. Unlike many recent House speakers, the Cincinnati-area native is born of a legislative tradition. He chaired the then-House Education and Workforce Committee for years and helped craft No Child Left Behind, working with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Along that line, Boehner has pledged to decentralize power in the House, giving committee chairmen more power to write and revise legislation — a contrast from the approaches taken by Democrat Nancy Pelosi and her Republican predecessors, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, who tended to dictate bills and votes.
"Committees should do serious work of crafting legislation," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as an aide to Boehner for six years. "When committees operate under assumption that legislation is going to see a floor vote, it produces better legislation."
Madden is confident Boehner will be able to corral his rowdy caucus and be productive. Boehner is "methodical, focused and reform-oriented," Madden said. "He's always sought to govern."
Weber, the former GOP congressman, believes that ultimately, many of the new members of the House will fall in line. "They're going to learn to want to govern," he said. "They didn't run for office just to make arguments. They will become part of the process to be able to achieve their own goals."