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Seeing mandate, many in GOP push big plans

WASHINGTON — In Congress and in statehouses, Republican lawmakers and governors are claiming a broad mandate from last year's elections as they embark on an aggressive campaign of cutting government spending and taking on public unions. Their agenda echoes in its ambition what President Barack Obama and Democrats tried after winning office in their own electoral wave two years ago.

In Washington, the House approved more than $60 billion in spending cuts before dawn on Saturday that would hit virtually every area of government, setting up a showdown with Senate Democrats and the White House.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, who is embroiled in a political fight with the teachers' union, is expected to call for drastic steps Tuesday to close a roughly $10 billion budget gap.

And nowhere has a newly elected Republican flexed more muscle or drawn a more severe backlash than in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is pushing to curtail collective bargaining rights for state employees. "For us, this is about balancing the budget," Walker said on "Fox News Sunday." "We've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit. We are broke. Just like nearly every other state across the country, we're broke."

But in the view of officials from both major political parties, Republicans may be risking the same kind of electoral backlash Democrats suffered after they were perceived as overreaching.

Public surveys suggest that most voters do not share the Republicans' fervor for the deep cuts adopted by the House, or for drastically slashing the power of public-sector unions. And independent voters have historically been averse to displays of political partisanship that have been played out over the last week in Washington and elsewhere.

"If Republicans push too far and overreach their mandate, they will be punished by independent voters, just as they were in 1996," said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. "Voters said they wanted bold action. They are getting bold action. But Republicans need to be constantly reminded that the last election was a referendum for change, not a referendum for the GOP."

McKinnon said that although Obama had claimed a mandate after his election, it turned out to be exaggerated. The president had paid a price for it, he said, and was adjusting.

Russ Feingold, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin who was turned out of office in the Republican sweep last year, said the new crop of Republicans was drawing false conclusions from the party's victory.

"They are taking some kind of public expression of deep concern about the economy and turning it into something entirely different," Feingold said. "They are making a mistake. They say: 'Well, we won the election. Elections have consequences.' And I say, yes, and we are going to have another election next year."

Republicans have presumably taken some lessons from Obama's experience. Several Republicans argued that the party was doing what Americans wanted — reining in an out-of-control government — and would ultimately be rewarded.

"It's about time somebody stood up and told the truth," Walker said. "And the only way for us to balance the budget at the state level or at the local level is to make sure that we give those local governments the tools they need to balance the budget, and that's what we're proposing."

Walker's plan includes banning unions from bargaining over issues other than wages, stopping the deduction of union dues from state paychecks and requiring annual elections for unions to stay in existence.

Other Republicans are making similar efforts. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich has signaled support for a law that would end collective bargaining rights for state workers and restrict those rights for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other local government employees. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is demanding that public workers pay 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

Many Republicans say they are confident they are following the wishes of voters. "I don't think there is an overreach," said Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin freshman who defeated Feingold, adding, "What we are facing is an American public that is really on the Republican side in their desire, on a macro basis, to cut spending, balance the budget and show real fiscal restraint."

At the very least, the huge demonstrations in Wisconsin over Walker's efforts to cut the benefits and the clout of unionized state workers suggest that the Republicans have succeeded in doing what Obama was unable to do last year: energize the Democratic base. In addition, several Democrats pointed to Republican efforts to cut back abortion rights as another example of something that made them subject to the same criticism Democrats faced: pursuing their party's base agenda while ignoring the central concern of Americans, jobs.

"I know what I have been hearing from my constituents," said Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House. "This seeming meanness and disdain — people want us to work together. They want us to solve problems. They want us to create jobs. They want to take care of their families. And I just hope they are watching this, because I don't think this agenda that I see playing out on the evening news is doing any of that."

Things are very much in flux in all legislative arenas, and it is hardly clear what the final results of these actions will be. In Washington, with Democrats still controlling the Senate and the White House, much of the Republican agenda is likely to be stymied.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll in January, 43 percent of respondents said job creation was the most important thing for Congress to focus on; 14 percent cited reducing the federal deficit.

Michael Dimock, the associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, said the center's polling had found that while voters were eager for deficit reduction, they also supported increases in spending on Social Security and Medicare and believed that tax increases would be needed to balance the budget.

"The spending-deficit issue is the trickiest issue for Republicans," Dimock said. "It's clear that the public is with them in principle — smaller government doing less — but it's unclear whether they're with them in practice."

The unemployment rate that proved to be a liability for Democrats in November remains high as officials, so far, have mostly failed to coalesce around shared economic policies. And some centrist lawmakers who had hoped that the successive elections of 2008 and 2010 would be interpreted as a hungering among American voters for moderation, say a new spirit has yet to take hold as Republicans have instead focused on the interests of the party's base.

For instance, not a single Democrat voted in favor of the Republican spending bill the House passed on Saturday — mirroring the often unanimous Republican opposition to Democratic bills last year.

"The first thing you have got to realize is that real bipartisanship has to be a verb not a noun, and it means getting people talking about specifics," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who is now retired, drafted legislation last year for a sweeping overhaul of the tax code.

"I do interpret this election as one where people were saying: 'Knock it off! We're tired of this food fight,'" Wyden said. "To me if you are dealing with big issues where there is a history of folks being divided, of real polarization, the day you pass something, folks are going to start to work to unravel it."

So far, Congress has yet to fully engage on issues like a tax overhaul, education standards, trade policy, or even modest energy initiatives, on which lawmakers in each party had predicted they could find common ground and make real progress in an era of divided government.

Ted Strickland, a Democrat who lost a bid for re-election as governor of Ohio, said one reason Democrats lost was because of public backlash to what many perceived as Obama expanding the government to an extent they had not anticipated, especially in the areas of stimulus spending and health care.

"I think that could very well be happening now," Strickland said. "I think the electorate is in a volatile mood. I think there's a continuing concern regarding the economy. And I'm watching what's happening in Washington. I think the Republicans are doing pretty much what they accused Democrats of doing, and that is not focusing on the economy and job creation."

John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, said Republicans were in fact focusing on what was of concern to voters — a bloated government — something Obama had not done.

"They have to do it," he said. "They have to do a good job laying out the facts and the alternatives, and I believe the public is ready for it."

Adam Nagourney reported from Los Angeles, and David M. Herszenhorn from Washington. Monica Davey contributed reporting from Madison, Wis.