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Cloudy Future for Obama's Second-Term Agenda

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
As the District prepares for his swearing-in ceremony, the president has a long list of items on his second-term agenda, but fiscal fights slated for early this year could derail his plans to address gun violence and immigration policy.

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.

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