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January 5, 2014

Obama eyes modest momentum on Capitol Hill

HONOLULU — President Barack Obama returns to Washington this weekend eager to test whether a modest budget deal passed in the waning days of 2013 can spark bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill. As he opens his sixth year in office, he also faces legacy-defining decisions on the future of government surveillance programs and the American-led war in Afghanistan.

Looming over it all will be the November congressional elections, Obama’s last chance to stock Capitol Hill with more Democratic lawmakers who could help him expand his presidential playing field.

For Republicans, those contests are an opportunity to seize control of the Senate, which would render Obama a lame duck for his final two years in the White House.

The wild card in 2014, for the White House and congressional Democrats facing re-election, will be the fate of the president’s health care law. The website woes that tainted its launch have largely been resolved and enrollment has picked up. But the White House has been tight-lipped about who has enrolled, raising uncertainty about whether the insurance exchanges are on track to get the percentage of young and healthy people who are critical to keeping prices down.

The health care questions aside, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House enters the new year buoyed by the “modest amount of legislative momentum” generated by the December budget deal.

“We’re hopeful Congress can build on it and make progress on other priorities where common ground exists,” Earnest said.

It won’t take long to test that proposition, with debates on unemployment insurance, budget spending and the government’s borrowing limit expected in quick succession in the opening weeks of the year.

If all three can be resolved in drama-free fashion — by Washington standards — the White House believes it could create a more favorable atmosphere for Obama to pursue second-term priorities such as an immigration overhaul and a higher minimum wage, though both would still face steep odds.

The president is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday morning after an overnight flight from his home state of Hawaii. He’s spent two quiet weeks on the island of Oahu golfing and spending time with his family and childhood friends.

Upon his return, Obama will step back quickly into the debate over expired unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote Monday night on a bill that would reinstate the benefits for three months.

Obama will try to make his case the following day, holding a White House event with some of those whose benefits expired at the end of December.

“For decades, Republicans and Democrats put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers, even when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. “Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year’s resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now.”

The issue with the greatest potential to upset the tepid truce forged in December’s budget deal is the debt ceiling. As part of the agreement that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, Congress suspended the $16 trillion-plus debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says bookkeeping maneuvers he can use to keep under that ceiling will last only until late February or early March.

Obama once again has pledged that he won’t negotiate on the matter. House Republicans will plot their strategy at a caucus retreat later this month.

Aside from fiscal matters, the president also must make decisions on what changes he wants in the government’s vast surveillance powers. He’s expected to announce those changes before his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, though an exact date has not been set.

A presidential commission presented Obama with more than 40 recommendations and the president signaled at a year-end news conference that he was open to many of the proposals. But he’s facing pushback from his intelligence advisers, who argue that the widespread collection of telephone and Internet records is crucial to national security.

The president also must make a decision on the future of the American force presence in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is yet to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that the Obama administration says is crucial if American troops are to stay in the country after the war formally concludes at the end of 2014.

The White House had hoped to have the agreement signed before Jan. 1, but indicated there was some flexibility on that timing. Officials say that without an agreement soon, the U.S. will be forced to start making plans to bring all of its troops home.

“We are talking about weeks, not months, left on the clock,” said Caitlin Hayden, Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman.

Aides say January’s packed agenda will keep the president in Washington for much of the lead up to his State of the Union address, though some brief domestic travel may occur.

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