Healthcare repeal tops list of Obama’s pending showdowns with Republicans

President Obama and Republicans taking over the House are girding for a series of showdowns set to begin almost immediately after Congress resumes next week.

At stake is not only the direction of government over the next two years, but whether it will function at all. The last Congress failed to approve a single appropriations bill, and funding for the government dries up the first week of March.

Lawmakers and the White House are set for serious budget negotiations that will begin immediately after the president’s State of the Union address. 

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Fights over healthcare, spending and the national debt could result in grand bargains like the tax-cut deal Obama struck with Republicans, or they could lead to a government shutdown, as when President Clinton went toe to toe with the GOP in 1995.

Emerging fights over environmental and Internet regulation also loom, as do scuffles over troop levels in Afghanistan, national security policies and GOP-led investigations of the Obama administration.

Here is a look at five Obama-GOP showdowns to watch in 2011:

HEALTHCARE FUNDING

Republicans leaders in the House have pledged to hold an up-or-down vote to repeal the healthcare law President Obama signed last year.

Once passed, however, this bill will be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Instead, the GOP is expected to try to withhold funding for the new law in the budget, hoping to impede its implementation.

Democrats will fight any defunding attempts aggressively; incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the departing Speaker, has already signaled that protecting Democratic gains of the last two years — and healthcare reform is the signature domestic policy achievement of the Obama presidency — will be a top party priority.

While Democrats will likely back tweaks to the healthcare law, such as removing an unpopular IRS reporting requirement for small businesses, Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) will face pressure from Tea Party-backed freshmen to insist on deeper revisions or cuts. If the parties reach an impasse on healthcare funding, the GOP could use the issue as a bargaining chip to extract spending-cut concessions from Obama elsewhere in the budget.

DEBT CEILING

Raising the debt limit to allow the government to borrow more money has become an almost-routine act of Congress in recent years, a necessary repercussion of a national debt that has soared to nearly $14 trillion.

But after an election in which dozens of GOP winners pledged to tackle that debt, lifting the ceiling will be anything but routine.

The first fight could come in February, and might pit Republicans against Republicans as much as Republicans against Obama. While Tea Party-aligned lawmakers will push for deep spending cuts to begin lowering the debt, Boehner has already acknowledged that as Speaker, he will likely have to preside over a vote to increase the debt limit.

“This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the GOP majority, he told The New Yorker. “You can underline ‘adult.' "

It was a statement the White House noticed, and Obama issued his own indirect warning to Boehner earlier this month, when he said, “I'll take John Boehner at his word — that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse.”

OVERALL SPENDING

On spending, both Republicans and the Obama administration begin with a small area of agreement: Both believe it should be cut. They disagree sharply, however, on what to cut and when to start cutting.

On the timing, Democratic economists have argued that immediate spending reductions will take money out of the fragile economic recovery and undermine the de facto stimulus package that Obama signed earlier this month, in the form of hundreds of billions of low-income tax credits and unemployment benefits. Republicans want the reductions to start now.

Battle lines are already forming over the nature of the cuts to come.

In a news conference last week, Obama said the debate would center on “how do we cut spending that we don’t need while making investments that we do need,” and he offered a hint of the areas he would try to protect: “investments in education, research and development, innovation and the things that are essential to grow our economy over the long run, create jobs and compete with every other nation in the world.” 

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” one of the GOP’s chief spending hawks, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), took aim at redundancies in federal job training programs and initiatives to promote science and math education — two areas that Democrats have repeatedly cited as critical to the nation’s long-term economic viabilities. In Congress, many Democrats will insist that the defense budget be trimmed as much or more than any other area.

ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION

One area where Republicans might have an upper hand is in their fight against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With the Democrats’ cap-and-trade plan dead in Congress for the foreseeable future, the Obama administration has turned to executive rule-writing to try to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.

The EPA took a big step toward expanded carbon regulations by announcing a timetable earlier this month for phasing in emissions standards for power plants and refineries. While the agency cites a Supreme Court ruling granting it the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emission, its aggressiveness has drawn the ire of coal-state senators like Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has pushed for legislation to roll back the EPA’s power.

In addition to a GOP House largely opposed to climate change regulation, Rockefeller now has six more Republicans in the Senate, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), his Mountaineer State colleague who famously shot a hole through the cap-and-trade bill in a campaign ad.

Obama will face pressure to fight these efforts from environmental advocates in his liberal base already disappointed by the failure to pass a broad climate change bill. Yet as gas prices rise with the recovering economy, public opinion could sway heavily against increased regulation and its associated short-term costs.

NET NEUTRALITY

The decision last week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on net neutrality has galvanized House Republicans, who have vowed to try to block new rules aimed at preventing cable and phone companies from interfering with Internet traffic.

Boehner has railed against the FCC order, calling it a needless regulation of the Internet that will stifle innovation and job creation. Republican lawmakers have said they will introduce legislation to overturn the decision.

They will face opposition from congressional Democrats and President Obama, who has long supported “net neutrality” and praised the FCC ruling. With both sides claiming to be on the side of a “free and open Internet,” the issue has the potential to become a flashpoint in arguments over how closely the Web should be regulated.