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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

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.

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.

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