Despite President Obama hailing his reelection as another opportunity for change, Tuesday's results also, in some ways, ensure a continuation of the status quo on Capitol Hill. The balance of power in Congress is unchanged, with Republicans still controlling the House of Representatives.
But whereas Obama spent the initial years of his first term pushing through transformational legislation amidst unified Republican opposition, he will spend a significant chunk of his second term implementing and defending those laws. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill's regulations are not fully fleshed out, and the Affordable Care Act does not take full effect until 2014.
Rep. Cantor, who has in the last few years emerged as a chief antagonist of the Obama administration, has already taken aim at one of the health care law's more controversial measures. In a letter to colleagues outlining a possible agenda in light of Mitt Romney's loss, Cantor advised trying to dismantle Obamacare's Independent Payment Advisory Board.
One of the health care law's key cost-control mechanisms is the 15-member panel IPAB responsible for cutting reimbursements to Medicare providers in an attempt to spend Medicare dollars more efficiently. Republicans have criticized the board as a panel of unaccountable bureaucrats making life-and-death decisions (hence "death panels"), and Romney throughout his campaign said the board would rob Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act.
Polls show the American public still hasn't fully embraced the health care overhaul, and Cantor urged his party to target the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The House has already voted to repeal the IPAB, although that motion -- like their repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely -- was a symbolic effort, given Democratic control of the Senate.
"If we successfully make the case publicly, bills that could reach the president's desk include ... repeal of IPAB," Cantor wrote. "There are some issues that I suspect [Senate Majority Leader and Democrat Harry] Reid will have a difficult time compelling his members to oppose outright."
Republicans will not need to repeal the IPAB outright to obstruct it. Members of the panel are appointed by the president and must then pass through a Senate confirmation. While Republicans are the minority in the Senate, they can still hold up those confirmation votes by threatening a filibuster.
But disputes over the Affordable Care Act will likely take a back seat, for the next few months, to the impending "fiscal cliff." Unless Congress acts, the Bush tax cuts will expire as the first round of "sequester" cuts, set in motion by last summer's debt-ceiling fight, kick in. Economists have warned that could deal a serious blow to the economy, potentially plunging the nation back into recession.
Speaker of the House John Boehner extended an olive branch on Wednesday, saying he would be open to working with President Obama to strike a deal. He said he would be open to finding new tax revenue -- a key impasse during the debt ceiling negotiations -- although he said Republicans are still opposed to raising tax rates.
“Mr. President, this is your moment,” Boehner said. “We’re ready to be led, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.”
Cantor's staunch resistance to a deficit-cutting deal that involved new tax revenue helped torpedo chances of a deal in the summer of 2011. He helped upend a "grand bargain" Boehner was discussing with President Obama and came to represent a tea party-inflected insurrection against the Republican leadership's attempt to find a deal.
In his letter, Cantor suggested averting the fiscal cliff with tax reform that lowers top rates. President Obama, conversely, has called for higher taxes on the nation's top earners, a notion that Sen. Reid said the American people had just backed.
“The president campaigned around the country saying, ‘We know what the problems are with this fiscal problem. We just need some revenue,’” Reid said on Wednesday. “That was the issue. The mandate was look at all the exit polls, look at all the polling, the vast majority of the American people, rich, poor, everybody agrees that the rich, richest of the rich, have to help a little bit.”
In other words, a new skirmish over tax rates and spending is approaching. And while Cantor urged some form of compromise, he signaled that he was ready to again lead Republicans into battle against the administration.
"There is no magic procedure that will make someone vote for something to which they are violently opposed," Cantor wrote. "I would suggest that rather than spending our time arguing over which process is the silver bullet that unlocks the votes in the Senate, that we heed the advice of President Reagan: 'When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.'"