Business behind him, Obama looks to 2014
By JOSH LEDERMAN
HONOLULU -- The last vestiges of 2013's political wrangling officially behind him, President Barack Obama is setting his sights on the coming year, when a number of unfinished tasks increasingly will compete for attention with the 2014 midterm elections.
Vacationing in Hawaii, Obama on Thursday signed into law a bipartisan budget deal softening the blow from scheduled spending cuts and a military bill cracking down on sexual assault. The two bills, passed by Congress with bipartisan support, constituted a modest step away from gridlock, and both parties cautiously hoped that spirit of cooperation might linger after New Year's Day.
"This law is proof that both parties can work together. We can put aside our differences and find common ground," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who negotiated the budget deal for Republicans, said in a statement.
Easier said than done.
Already, familiar fault lines are emerging as Republicans and Democrats retrench for the next fiscal fight over raising the debt ceiling, which the Treasury said must be resolved by late February or early March. Despite the White House's insistence Obama won't negotiate about the issue, Ryan has vowed the GOP will seek concessions.
Whether Obama and Republicans can resolve their differences without another default-threatening showdown might set the stage for other items on the agenda as Washington gears up for the midterm elections in November.
That's when the entire House and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot.
"There's a fresh year, but it's not as good as being re-elected. Obama is starting from a rough position, and the clock is already short," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "By June or July, most legislators are focused on getting re-elected, and it's very hard to get them to do anything at that point."
High on the agenda for the start of the year is a renewed push on immigration. Bipartisan consensus about the need for action on immigration in the wake of the 2012 presidential election gave way in 2013 to opposition from conservative House Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has started offering subtle signs he'll put more weight behind the issue despite continued resistance from the tea party.
In late January, Obama will give his fifth State of the Union address, setting his agenda for the final stretch before the midterms. As the end of this year approached, he cast a renewed focus on economic plans aimed at closing the income gap between rich and poor. The White House is pushing Congress to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless that expire this month and to raise the minimum wage.
Obama also might be hoping that as health care coverage provided through government exchanges kicks in Jan. 1, Republicans will find it more difficult to argue the entire law should be repealed. The calamitous roll-out of the law this year became a significant distraction for the White House and has provided fodder to Republican candidates heading into the midterms.
In Obama's suitcase as he left Washington last week was a set of recommendations from an advisory panel he appointed to review the National Security Agency's intelligence collection programs. The White House said Obama would be studying the recommendations during his vacation in Hawaii.