5 things that will measure Obama-Congress comity

MGN
Sunday, January 5, 2014 - 8:35pm

2013 ended with Congress reaching a deal on funding the government without all the end-of-the-year drama that we've come to expect. Democrats and Republicans defied the recent all-or-nothing gamesmanship and brokered a budget deal before its deadline, prompting speculation that maybe, just maybe, dogs and cats can live together.

Here are five things on both President Barack Obama's and Congress' agendas that will show pretty quickly whether breaking the partisan logjam in the capital is possible or just a fantasy.

1. Unemployment insurance

The bipartisan biodome already seems to be showing cracks in its fragile foundation on the question of whether to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed. With the Senate set to take up the measure when it returns from holiday recess Monday, Sen. Harry Reid backed his Republican colleagues into a corner with a flurry of verbal jabs. Reid told CNN the GOP demand for offsets -- corresponding cuts that would cover the $26 billion cost of a temporary extension in unemployment benefits -- is "foolishness."

Though some Republicans, including Nevada conservative Sen. Dean Heller, have said they're willing to cross the aisle on the issue, House leaders drew a line: A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner insisted the top Republican in the House won't agree to extend long-term unemployment benefits unless Democrats come up with a way to pay for them.

The White House isn't giving any ground on the matter, either. After the President scolded Republicans for being "cruel" to the Americans most in need of help, the Obama administration's top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, told CNN's Candy Crowley on Sunday that should the GOP fail to cooperate, they would hurt the country and hurt themselves at the polls in 2014.

Still, despite the growing chorus of discord and doubters, Reid remained confident he could find the 60 votes necessary to clear the first procedural hurdle in the deeply divided body on Monday.

2. Funding the government: Devil's in the details

Before lawmakers toast bipartisanship, they might want to think about re-corking the champagne. Yes, congressional negotiators did agree to a deal that would fund the government through 2015. And, yes, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who brokered the deal, proclaimed an end to the budget bickering that's gridlocked the capital in recent years.

But there have been a lot of bold podium proclamations that ultimately ended up as footnotes.

While the deal would set federal spending on domestic and defense programs at little more than $1 trillion for both this fiscal year and next, the budget package does little in terms of providing long-term savings and offers no sequester relief beyond 2016.

More importantly, the Ryan-Murray accord amounts to a framework, leaving Appropriations Committee staffers in a bind to flesh out the details before January 15. The omnibus behemoth also takes what's normally a steady march to the finish -- appropriators normally dole out funds in 12 separate bills -- and compresses it into a full-on sprint.

Plus, this isn't exactly mathematical mad-libs. Appropriators need to agree on just how much to parcel out to federal agencies, including those charged with implementing the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. Most are hoping a coffee-fueled cram can prevent the collapse of a major milestone and let Congress focus on more important things -- like doing away with the NFL television blackout and making sure the Treasury can't mint trillion-dollar platinum coins.

3. The coming storm: Debt ceiling

Everyone knows the stakes on this one.

The full faith and credit of the United States.

The ability of the federal government to pay its bills.

The stability of the world economy.

Just be thankful the looming consequences don't also include zombies.

Even after the brinkmanship that preceded an October compromise that gave the government fiscal breathing room until February 7, Congress and the White House seem poised to take the battle over the debt limit into the early morning hours of February 8. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he couldn't "imagine it being done clean," and Ryan slung aside his bipartisan ball cap to tell Fox News that Republicans "don't want nothing out of this debt limit."

Obama, for his part, has now uttered the line that his administration is "not going to negotiate for Congress to pay its bills" enough times to create a sizeable YouTube mashup.

Though the Treasury Department will still be able to use "extraordinary measures" to temporarily delay the onset of financial ruin, the Congressional Budget Office projects those measures would probably be exhausted in March.

4. Obamacare

The Republican-controlled House seems set on spending 2014 like it spent most of 2013: shining a white-hot spotlight on the uneven rollout of Obamacare and trying to repeal or roll back the President's signature health care law.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Thursday the House's first order of business when it returns from its holiday break would be a vote on legislation to address potential security risks for personal information collected on the Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov.

Americans for Prosperity, which spent $16 million on anti-Obamacare television ads in the fall, will spend $2.5 million on fresh commercials that target three Democratic senators up for re-election for their support of Obamacare: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While HealthCare.gov provides a steady stream of fodder for conservatives, websites can be fixed and glitches remedied. But Republicans are banking on the idea that the "it's more than just a botched website" narrative, especially the President's broken promise on keeping your health care plan, can carry them to electoral success in the midterm elections this fall.

The latest CNN/ORC poll on Obamacare law showed opposition to it now sits at 62% and that the administration is fighting a losing battle to sell one of the Democrats' key electoral blocs -- women -- on the law's merits. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed believe the new law will increase the amount of money they personally pay for medical care, a finding that runs counter to the White House's argument that the law is working and its favorite statistical refrain: Health care costs in the United States have grown at the slowest rate on record over since the act was signed into law.

5. The long way around: immigration reform

Speaking to supporters in San Francisco on November 25, Obama said, "It's long past time to fix our broken immigration system."

It was a major item on the President's first-term agenda and arguably the top task on his 2013 to-do list. Republicans know they must address the issue or lose the vital Latino voting bloc for generations to come. But 12 pages on the congressional calendar have been ripped off and flung in the rubbish bin, and still Congress appears no closer to finally moving on immigration reform.

Whether the House chooses to bring up immigration legislation this year largely depends on whether the GOP powers-that-be think it's a winning issue. A pair of November surveys indicated a majority of Americans favored a pathway to citizenship but said moving now on reform isn't necessarily a priority. That data could give an already-reluctant caucus even more pause in taking up the issue and may increase the velocity of the "headwinds" Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the effort will need to overcome.
 

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