WASHINGTON – These are two remarkably different visions for governing America. Republicans are pledging to shrink the government, cut taxes and undo health care and stimulus laws. President Barack Obama and Democrats want tax cuts for the middle class, more stimulus spending and an end to the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.
With Thursday's release of the GOP's "Pledge to America" — a strongly worded manifesto promising to return government to the people, trim it through deep spending cuts, and refocus it on defense and tax cuts — the two parties have laid out deeply contrasting agendas for the next two years.
Less than six weeks before midterm congressional elections, it's promise-making time for both parties, and voters are getting some insight into how the two parties want to change the country.
Still, many of the vows on both sides are deliberately vague. The reality behind each party's stirring rhetoric is that little may change after Election Day.
Republicans are poised to add substantially to their ranks in the contests, perhaps enough to give them control of the House and to whittle Democrats' margin of control to almost nothing in the Senate.
If Democrats hang onto power, their majority is virtually certain to be weakened considerably, leaving them little room to maneuver on unfinished items on their agenda, including energy legislation to curb carbon emissions and creation of a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.
Either way, it's a recipe for likely gridlock, with the GOP positioned to stymie Obama on everything from the budget to immigration policy. Veto showdowns could become common, and neither party would command enough votes to force through major initiatives.
The starkest differences are on spending and taxes. Republicans want to extend all of George W. Bush's income tax cuts permanently — at a cost of some $4 trillion over 10 years — and add new ones including a 20 percent deduction for small businesses.
Democrats are proposing to keep the rates where they are for individuals making up to $200,000 and for families earning up to $250,000 — but to hit wealthier individuals and some small businesses with tax hikes in January. Their plan would cost $3 trillion. They're also proposing to give investment tax breaks to small businesses. In addition, Democrats want to impose tax penalties on companies that move jobs and factories overseas and to offer tax breaks for firms that bring jobs back to the United States.
On spending, Republicans say they want to roll the government back to 2008 levels, although they would leave intact three politically untouchable constituencies: veterans, seniors and the military. They say they'd freeze stimulus projects and impose hard limits on future spending, although they did not propose a ban on earmarks — the now-infamous practice of individual lawmakers steering projects to their districts.
It's unclear how much could be saved through these measures. Most of the $814 billion in stimulus money has already been spent. The GOP estimates its cuts would amount to $100 billion in savings a year, but budget experts say the figure could be far less.
Exempting veterans, seniors and defense spending "leaves a pretty small slice of pie to be whittling away at, and hard to believe there is $100 billion in savings available as promised," Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote in an e-mail. "Political promises come and go, we will have to see if this product has any traction or is even remotely implementable."
Democrats, for their part, are calling for more spending to jump-start the ailing economy. Obama has proposed a $50 billion road-, railway- and runway-building plan as well as a new infrastructure bank to pay for future projects.
The two parties are deeply at odds on health care.
Republicans would repeal this year's big overhaul, presumably canceling parts that began taking effect Thursday: letting young adults remain on family health plans until they turn 26, providing free preventive care and ending denials of coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions.
The GOP proposes to replace the measure with an array of changes to make it easier for individuals to find private insurance and pay for medical care. Those include letting people buy coverage outside their states, expanding state programs that cover high-risk patients who can't otherwise get insurance and expanding the use of tax-advantaged savings accounts to cover medical costs.
Like Democrats, Republicans say they would put an end to lifetime and annual coverage limits and bar insurers from canceling coverage for people who get sick. But the GOP stops short of making it illegal to deny insurance to anyone with a pre-existing condition. The Pledge to America says that would be so only for people who already had coverage.
There are plenty of question marks in both parties' agendas. Neither has been specific about how it would accomplish the trickiest items.
The Republicans pledge to "put government on a path to a balanced budget and pay down the debt." But when it comes to addressing looming shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, two huge drivers of deficit spending, the GOP is silent on how to do it.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who would be speaker if the GOP won the 40 seats it needs to take control, said he'd be open to suggestions from the public about that issue.
"It's time for us as Americans to have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges that face our country. I don't have all of the solutions," he said.
Similarly, Democrats have hit Republicans hard on the campaign trail for what they say is the party's plan to privatize Social Security, but they haven't said what they'd do to fix the program's financial programs either.
Democrats are working to persuade voters that they've done the best possible with a GOP-created mess.
"The scales are always tilted in favor of the people who are only making a proposal and not having to defend a record," said congressional scholar Stephen Hess of the liberal Brookings Institution.
Republicans are working to strike a tricky balance. Some of them privately questioned the decision to unveil an major policy agenda at all, arguing that it could trip up their candidates and spoil an anti-Obama strain among voters that was working to their advantage.
And then there's the problem of whether they'll be able to fulfill their promises if they win.
"The big risk is they don't want to overpromise stuff that they can't deliver on. On the other hand, they don't want to give the impression that they're just tinkering in the margins in Washington," said Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "People will understand if Obama's president for two years, not everything's going to be possible."