* Fiscal fights may consume Washington, elbow out all else
* Obama vows to push ahead with broader agenda
* 'A high level of dysfunction' makes legislative wins hard
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Jan 4 After a brutal "fiscal cliff"
battle, President Barack Obama's looming budget confrontation
with Congress threatens to sharply curtail his second-term
agenda and limit his ambitions on priorities such as immigration
reform and gun control.
Obama has vowed to push ahead with other legislative
priorities during the fiscal fight, but faces the likelihood
that they will be elbowed aside in a fierce struggle with
Republicans over approaching deadlines to raise the limit on
federal borrowing, cut spending and fund government operations.
Obama and Congress must agree by the end of March on
increasing the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, the fate of $85
billion in delayed automatic spending cuts and passage of a bill
to fund the government after a temporary measure expires.
Those budget battles could be even more intense than the
weeks-long "fiscal cliff" fight that ended on New Year's Day
with an agreement to raise taxes on the wealthy, leaving divided
Republicans itching for revenge and a fractured relationship
between Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
"We always felt that a bipartisan and amicable conclusion to
the fiscal cliff would lead to a very positive agenda for the
next two years, and the opposite occurred. It bodes poorly for
Obama's other major priorities," said Jim Kessler, senior vice
president for policy at the centrist think tank Third Way.
"There is a high level of dysfunction. They haven't cracked
the code yet on how to work with each other," Kessler said of
Obama and congressional Republicans.
The fiscal cliff fight overwhelmed nearly everything else at
the White House for two months. A similar result in the budget
battle would be bad news for Obama, cutting into the narrow
one-year to 18-month window when second-term presidents
traditionally still have the political clout to achieve their
most significant legislative victories.
"From a Republican standpoint, if you don't want Obama to
get any oxygen on these other issues, focusing on the fiscal
cliff and all these budget issues is a very good way to run out
the clock on him," said Republican strategist John Feehery, a
former Capitol Hill aide.
Obama has promised to pursue a broad second-term agenda
focused on comprehensive immigration reform, bolstering domestic
energy production, fighting climate change and gun control.
After the "fiscal cliff" deal, he said he would not curtail his
agenda because of the looming budget fights.
"We can settle this debate, or at the very least, not allow
it to be so all-consuming all the time that it stops us from
meeting a host of other challenges that we face," Obama said on
New Year's Day before boarding a flight to Hawaii to resume a
holiday interrupted by the fiscal cliff fight.
"It's not just possible to do these things; it's an
obligation to ourselves and to future generations," he said.
PRIMED FOR A FIGHT
Republicans are primed for the coming fight, believing they
have more leverage against Obama than during the fiscal cliff
battle. Failure to close a deal on the debt ceiling could mean a
default on U.S. debt or another downgrade in the U.S. credit
rating like the one after a similar showdown in 2011.
A failure to reach agreement on a government funding bill
could mean another federal shutdown like brief ones in 1995 and
Republicans say they will not back an increase in the
federal debt ceiling without significant spending cuts opposed
by many Democrats, particularly to popular "entitlement"
programs such as the government-funded Medicare and Medicaid
healthcare plans for the elderly and poor.
"When you look at what's coming down the pike, it will make
the fiscal cliff look like a day in Sunday school," said
Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.
"You're talking about a battle that's going to last weeks or
months. If they get a deal, it's going to be ugly, it's going to
be brutal. Once you get past that, where do you find the will to
address other issues? It's going to be very hard," he said.
Administration officials promise to move quickly in January
in pursuit of new legislation on gun control and immigration.
The gun control effort will be led by Vice President Joe Biden,
who was appointed to develop a response to the deadly
Connecticut school shootings in December.
But what seemed to be fresh momentum for new measures such
as a ban on assault rifles after the mass killing in Connecticut
could be stalled by a protracted focus on the seemingly
never-ending budget showdowns.
Obama also plans to introduce comprehensive immigration
legislation this month. Republicans will have fresh incentive on
the issue after Hispanics soundly rejected Republican
presidential contender Mitt Romney in the November election,
giving Obama more than 70 percent of their vote.
But a Senate Republican leadership aide said economic issues
would be the prime concern of Congress for months, pushing back
consideration of gun control and immigration. The aide blamed
"The lack of leadership on spending and debt has put us
behind on a number of other issues. That is not something that
can be resolved quickly," the aide said.
When blocked in Congress, Obama has shown a willingness to
use executive orders and agency rules to make policy changes.
During last year's campaign, Obama ordered an end to
deportations of young undocumented immigrants who came to the
country as children and had never committed a crime.
This week, the Department of Homeland Security changed its
rules to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get a
waiver allowing them to stay in the country as they seek
With Republicans motivated to improve their standing with
Hispanics, there is a chance Congress will work with the White
House to pass an immigration bill that both bolsters border
security and offers a pathway to legal status for undocumented
immigrants who pay their back taxes and fines.
Finding the rare sweet spot where Obama and Republicans
actually agree on an issue could be the key to second-term
"The only thing that gets done outside of the economy are
things that Republicans decide they have to get done for their
own political futures," Feehery said.
But Kessler said he was skeptical that Obama and Congress
can find common ground on a comprehensive immigration measure
that provides a long-term solution for the country's 12 million
"Will something get done on immigration? Probably. But a
major deal that addresses all undocumented immigrants in a
comprehensive way? We're much less confident than we were two
weeks ago," Kessler said.
"The question now is, do they even know how to make deals
with each other?" he said.