In U.S. politics, there is no issue that divides Democrats and Republicans more than their vastly different views on the role and size of the central government. That political divide is at the heart of the intensifying debate over the federal budget.
Republicans made significant gains in last November’s midterm congressional elections, and many of them saw the election results as proof Americans want to sharply cut the size of the federal government.
That is why Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and others were quick to dismiss President Barack Obama’s $3.7-trillion budget proposal for 2012 that includes a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
"The people who voted for a new direction in November have a five word response - 'We do not have the money,'" said McConnell.
Republicans are putting forward a budget blueprint of their own that calls for far deeper cuts in federal spending to reverse the course of soaring budget deficits.
This battle over how much to cut from the federal budget will dominate the Washington political scene for the foreseeable future and also sets the scene for the 2012 presidential election campaign.
The gap between the two parties over the budget seems huge, but President Obama says even in the wake of last year’s elections, most Americans want to see the two sides find common ground.
"The key thing that I think the American people want to see is that all sides are serious about it, and all sides are willing to give a little bit, and that there is a genuine spirit of compromise as opposed to people being interested in scoring political points," said Obama.
Public-opinion polls indicate Mr. Obama’s political standing improved after he reached a bipartisan compromise with Republicans on extending tax cuts late last year.
Political strategist Mark McKinnon said that spirit of cooperation, which was largely lacking during Obama’s first two years in office, could continue this year. McKinnon is co-founder of a group called 'No Labels' that promotes bipartisan cooperation.
"Even though there are different points of view on it, I get the sense that Americans and the political class (politicians) are really committed to working together to find solutions in a way that they have not been in a long time," said McKinnon.
Some newly elected Republicans, however, are not in a mood to compromise on the budget. Many of them were elected with help from supporters of the so-called Tea Party movement, a grass-roots uprising of conservative and Libertarian activists who want to roll back the power and size of the federal government.
Newly-elected Congressman Bobby Schilling is a Republican from Illinois who owes a lot to Tea Party activists. Schilling told NBC’sMeet the Press that many newly-elected Republicans will think twice about angering voters back in their home districts who expect deep cuts in federal spending.
"They are going to hold people accountable on either side," said Schilling. "And I was told, 'Hey, you know what, if you go against the things we sent you there for, we are going to work just as hard to get you out.'"
Political analyst Charlie Cook said Schilling and others elected with Tea Party help may find it hard to compromise on some of their core beliefs.
"They would be defying their base (supporters). They would be defying the people that elected them a majority. They really would be betraying their supporters," said Cook.
Veteran Republican political operative Scot Faulkner worked for former President Ronald Reagan and for Republican congressional leaders.
Faulkner sees a protracted political debate over the budget this year that will easily carry over into the 2012 presidential election campaign.
"I think we are already seeing some danger signs that Republicans see the next two years as a preamble to 2012 and they want to basically put (political) points on the board against Obama, as opposed to points on the board showing that Republicans can govern."
Experts say the budget debate could easily polarize advocates on both the political left and right, which could leave an opening for Obama.
Richard Wolffe, who has written two books about President Obama and is a political analyst for MSNBC television, said "But it also opens up an opportunity for the president to get back to where he was in 2008 as a candidate, which is to say, 'I am above the fray. There are all these children fighting, there are these extremists on the left and the right, and I am the reasonable guy in the middle.'"
The debate over the budget and the size of the federal government also is expected to be a major issue in the battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, which officially will begin early next year. Several potential Republican presidential contenders are expected to announce their plans within the next few months.