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Cloudy Future for Obama’s Second-Term Agenda

Looming fight over debt ceiling threatens president’s agenda, could detract attention from slew of other items on his list

President Barack Obama is less than a week away from taking his second oath of office, but the expansive agenda he’s already laid out for his second term has no clear path to enactment.

Ambition certainly isn’t the problem. Obama has pledged to take on some of the nation’s thorniest problems: the still massive deficit, a weak job market, an immigration policy overhaul, gun violence, a tax overhaul and energy. But his agenda will remain stymied as long as Congress remains divided over how to keep the government open past March.

The looming fights over the debt ceiling and spending threaten to spoil the White House’s hope for a quick launch to the rest of the president’s agenda. And in trying to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt, Obama may have to use most of his political capital.

“His unwillingness to come to a reasonable compromise has left a lot of unfinished business that will only crowd out his own agenda,” warned Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. “The president has thus far shown he wants to fight rather than find common ground, which doesn’t bode well for productivity the rest of the year.”

The optimistic scenario from the president’s point of view — outlined in a news conference Monday — is that “common sense” will prevail on the debt ceiling and that he and GOP leaders will be able to separately reach a budget compromise that cuts health care costs and closes tax loopholes. During negotiations last year, the two sides got within a few hundred billion dollars on a 10-year deal, Obama noted.

But he stuck to his talk-to-the-hand strategy on the debt ceiling itself, telling reporters Monday he was intent on ending the practice of using it as a hostage.

“They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” the president vowed. He said there is no magic backup plan that could avoid the need for Congress to act.

The president predicted last year that the first six months of his second term could be messy as the nation sorts through the fiscal drama that has consumed Washington since the tea-party-infused Republicans took back the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms.

The upside, to the extent that there is one, to the March fiscal cliff is that it will happen in relatively short order — potentially leaving time for other priorities later in the year. House Republican leaders are considering one long-term solution: a four-year debt limit increase. But in exchange they would demand major tax and entitlement reforms at which Democrats are likely to balk.

Indeed, there’s no guarantee the crisis will be resolved quickly.

“The alternative scenario is dribblets of small increases in the debt limit and short continuing resolutions. … The water torture just goes on and on and on,” said Joseph J. Minarik, a senior vice president at the Committee for Economic Development.

“It’s hard to be an optimist at the moment,” said Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton budget director and co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s debt reduction task force. “I think this is a problem that both sides should want to get solved and behind us so they can get on with the business of government. It’s counterproductive for the economy and for the chances of getting anything else done.”

Still, the president signaled that he wants to move quickly on a comprehensive immigration package and on gun violence, as well as jobs and energy. Immigration and guns are hot-button issues that will be a tough sell in the House, given that they were too volatile even when Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California held the speaker’s gavel.

But the White House believes it has cause to hope. The Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre prompted a nationwide discussion over guns, with even some rank-and-file members in the GOP showing a willingness to consider some restrictions.

And House Republican leaders have put immigration near the top of their 2013 agenda and have spoken of the need to reach out to the Hispanic community, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Democrats in 2012.

The White House believes Republicans have a political imperative to come to the table on immigration as a result and some Senate Republicans, such as Marco Rubio of Florida, are pushing their party hard to move on the issue. Other Republicans — including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Mike Lee of Utah — have reportedly been meeting with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in an attempt to craft a bill by March. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told a Nevada television station Jan. 11 that immigration will be the chamber’s top priority this year.

On guns, a ban on assault weapons appears to be dead on arrival in the House, and Reid said in the same television interview that such a ban may not even pass the Senate. But the White House, Reid and other congressional Democrats believe some more modest measures, such as universal background checks and upgrading the database to better screen out criminals and the mentally ill, may have a chance.

Republicans clearly feel vulnerable on the gun issue. Some lawmakers have noted their openness to limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, only to walk back those comments when they were criticized later.

If the debt limit is somehow resolved, there is a chance at least that a broader tax overhaul package could be in the offing as well later this year.

Tax reform has long been a bipartisan goal of top tax writers, with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., ranking member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., keen on crafting an overhaul that would simplify the code, lower rates and shrink deductions.

But that push could be hindered by Obama’s demand for more revenue — and the GOP’s position that taxes are off the table after the fiscal cliff deal netted $620 billion in revenue.

The president, meanwhile, doesn’t appear sold on the idea that his agenda will get more traction if he’s nicer to the GOP or holds more cocktail parties.

Obama said that it’s up to voters to reward lawmakers who look for common ground. “That’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud,” he said.

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