Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. (Photo: republicanconference / Flickr)
Washington - The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will mean a new lineup of powerful committee chairmen devoted to tough fiscal discipline, dramatic changes in health care and immigration laws, and investigations into White House controversies.
While some battles for top spots have yet to be resolved, Republicans who are expected to take the gavels have signaled loyalty to GOP leaders and their "Pledge to America" agenda.
House committee chairmen wield considerable power. House rules often make it difficult to change major bills on the floor, meaning that most major changes usually occur at the committee level. There, few lawmakers want to defy the chairman, who's usually loyal to his party leadership.
At the House Ways and Means Committee, where major bills on taxes, trade and Social Security are written, likely chairman Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan has made it clear that he wants a change in direction from the past 21 months.
Republicans want to extend permanently the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of this year. The White House wants to extend only tax reductions for couples who earn up to $250,000 annually and singles who make up to $200,000. Republicans say that failing to extend the tax cuts for those who make more would hit them with a tax hike during a weak economy.
"That tax hike will not only hit families hard, it will be devastating to our economy," Camp said.
Spending plans will pass first through the House Budget Committee, which writes budget guidelines, then the Appropriations Committee, which allocates spending for specific items. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is set to take over Budget, while either Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky or Rep. Jerry Lewis of California is expected to helm Appropriations.
Ryan has gone further than House GOP leaders, pushing his "Roadmap for America's Future." Its most controversial features include offering people younger than 54 the option of investing one-third of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts.
Budget committee leaders often take bold approaches; they create broad budget blueprints. But Appropriations Committee members, faced with thousands of decisions on specific spending items — including lots of pet local projects — tend to be less rigid.
Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, wasn't optimistic that the new chairmen would make meaningful dents in the deficit or debt anytime soon.
House Republicans vowed in their "Pledge to America" to roll back most domestic spending to 2008 levels, but Bixby maintains "you've got to go much further than that" to reduce the deficit, which totaled $1.29 trillion last year.
The committees face at least two big, traditional obstacles, he said: Appropriators are traditionally masters at adding local projects to win colleagues' support, and any legislation needs the approval of the Senate, where Democrats continue to hold a majority. Then President Barack Obama must sign on for anything to become law, unless Republicans somehow could muster two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress to override his veto.
Despite such obstacles, the new House chairmen are expected to try hard to impose their discipline on federal spending.
Another dramatic change will come in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Democrat Henry Waxman, an outspoken liberal activist, will be replaced by a Republican. Fred Upton of Michigan and John Shimkus of Illinois are said to be front-runners.
Also in the running is Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, a longtime friend to big oil. Several House Republicans don't think Barton will get the gavel because he criticized the White House for getting BP to set up a $20 billion Gulf Coast oil spill compensation fund.
Barton called the fund a "$20 billion shakedown" and was publicly admonished by House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
One chairman whom the Senate will be unable to stop is Rep. Darrell Issa of California, in line to head the Oversight and Government Reform panel.
The party out of power at the White House often has been able to use that panel to investigate what it considers overreaching or worse by the administration, and Issa has been eager to pounce.
"I have several hundred letters, most of which have not been responded to, that I'm going to ask the White House to dust off and answer our questions," Issa said Wednesday, including controversies over food safety and subprime mortgage lending.
The new Energy and Commerce chairman will become the House's chief spokesman for two major Republican efforts: repealing the health care overhaul law and easing federal environmental regulations.
Prospects of moving a comprehensive immigration bill, stalled over the last two years, aren't likely to improve as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee.
He's been a critic of attempts by the White House and congressional Democrats to push an immigration bill that includes a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Smith is a secure-the-borders-first advocate who matched religious leaders biblical verse for verse at an immigration hearing in July.
Quoting Romans 13:1-7, Smith told the religious leaders, "Let every person be subject to governing authorities."
(Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)