Fresh from a two-week vacation in Hawaii, President Barack Obama returned to Washington today to face a new year frontloaded with old problems.
Pending issues include the March enrollment deadline for the president’s troubled health-care program and finalizing an agreement to wrap up the war in Afghanistan. Yet it’s the issues with no fixed endpoint that will trigger legislative wrangles with Republicans, including completing stalled negotiations on immigration, reaching a long-term budget deal and agreeing on an extension of emergency unemployment benefits.
Obama has scheduled a Jan. 7 event at the White House to urge Congress to renew the emergency unemployment payment benefits and used his weekly television and radio address to say that “denying families that security is just plain cruel.”
Obama is also preparing for another standoff with congressional Republicans over raising the nation’s debt limit. While the president has said repeatedly that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling, Republicans have indicated they’ll seek spending cuts in return for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
At the same time, aides to the president expressed optimism in vacation briefings that a bipartisan budget deal struck last month to avert a government shutdown for two years will pave the way on these issues as well as larger goals including immigration reform.
“At the beginning of the new year, we’re hopeful that Congress can capitalize on the bipartisan momentum generated by last year’s small budget deal and make progress on other economic priorities, including extending employment benefits,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
That optimism was echoed by House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman Brendan Buck.
“The takeaway from the year-end budget deal should be that we can accomplish things if we focus on the common ground and not get hung up on issues that divide us,” he said. “This year will only be productive if the White House has learned that lesson.”
Obama will need bipartisan support for two key domestic challenges in 2014: an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and new restrictions on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs in the wake of contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about excesses in covert U.S. programs. The president is expected to unveil proposals on both issues in his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech.
The immigration law passed by the Senate has been blocked in the House over its path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented residents. While its chances may improve if Boehner, an Ohio Republican, decides to allow it to a vote ahead of midterm elections, any bipartisan negotiations will test Obama’s and Boehner’s fragile record of being able to work together.
To bolster his relationship with Congress, Obama has temporarily brought on board John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, as well as Obama’s former legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro.
Obama also named Katie Beirne Fallon as his new legislative affairs director, who before serving as Obama’s deputy communications director was a congressional aide to New York Democrat Charles Schumer.