WASHINGTON - Leaders of the new Republican majority emerged emboldened Wednesday, promising to slash the size of government and setting their sights on repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) began to lay the groundwork for what is still a loosely defined Republican agenda, but he signaled his desire not to overreach or misinterpret the election results as giving his party a large mandate. GOP leaders agreed that their victory had more to do with what the public opposed than what they offered.
"It's pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner, the speaker-in-waiting, told reporters. "We're going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government."
Obama said he would redouble his efforts to work with House Republicans, but he also firmly defended his policies of the past two years and suggested that his failures were more about messaging than anything else.
With at least 60 seats gained, Republicans were poised to control their largest House majority since the Truman administration of the late 1940s. Their top priority, they said, is cutting the size of government.
But their ultimate target is Obama's health care overhaul, which many new members ran on a promise to repeal. Boehner said he would move slowly, adding that it is important to "lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity."
With Democrats still in control of the Senate and Obama in command of the veto pen, Republicans will be hard-pressed to make good on their hopes of repeal. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), fresh from his victory over tea party candidate Sharron Angle, said he is open to "tweaking." Obama, too, expressed flexibility on some details, but said the public stands behind the new legislation.
Exit polls showed that roughly half the public wants to repeal the bill but that the other half wants to keep or expand it, setting the stage for a potential showdown.
Adjusting to his new role, Boehner appointed Republicans to a "transition committee" to examine both internal rules of the House and the agenda ahead. Republicans began a scramble for lower-level leadership posts and for committee chairs, which Boehner wants to empower.
Republicans were notably cautious in their interpretation of the election results, choosing not to claim a broad mandate.
Far from announcing a major shakeup, as George W. Bush did after losing Congress in 2006, Obama suggested that he would recommit to his top priorities of energy and the economy - and not back away from the central provisions of his health care overhaul. He pledged to work harder at his long-stated goal of finding common ground with Republicans, now a strategic necessity.
Senate Democrats were on pace to maintain control, although with a much smaller majority of 52 or 53 seats. Party leaders conceded the new reality but pivoted to a position of demanding that Republicans engage in the legislative process more so next year than in the previous two years.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), driven from power after four years as the first woman to fill that role, said she had not decided whether to relinquish her post. If she steps aside, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland is the presumed Democratic House leader.