No fresh start for Obama, Republicans

President Obama’s second term hasn’t begun yet, but a set of new fights with Republicans is already well underway.

Another major budget battle, immigration reform and gun control top his 2013 agenda, and this week he announced a trio of key Cabinet nominations that could complicate all three of those priorities.

ADVERTISEMENT
A potential ally on immigration, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), called Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) for defense secretary an “in your face” move, while the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Jeff Sessions (Ala.) angrily denounced his pick of Jack Lew to head the Treasury.

As for John Brennan, Obama’s choice for CIA chief, Republicans are signaling they could hold up his nomination until the administration provides long-sought answers to their questions about the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi last September.

Most troubling for the president is that the latest vitriol is coming from the Senate, the chamber of Congress with which the administration has gotten along (relatively) well in the last several months.

The House, on the other hand, is verging on a lost cause for Obama.

The president and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are barely on speaking terms after their latest failed bid to strike a grand bargain on the deficit, and there appears to be minimal overlap between Obama’s top priorities and those of House Republicans – namely entitlement reform, spending cuts and broad tax reform.

All of which explains why the word “honeymoon” has not been uttered in Washington since early 2009.

The White House moves this week – from nominating Hagel over GOP objections to Vice President Biden’s warning that Obama could bypass Congress with executive orders on guns – point to a president girding for fights. And his growing second-term wish list marks a sharp change from the campaign, when Obama faced criticism from both the right and left for failing to articulate exactly what he wanted to do in the next four years.

Obama has often used his major speeches to call for compromise, but if his remarks in Newtown last month were any indication, his inaugural and State of the Union addresses over the next month will feature more demands for action than pleas for political harmony.

Yet as eloquent as the president may be, his voice only travels so far in the Republican-led House, and that chamber is where his second-term agenda will advance or stall.

Speaker Boehner, though politically weakened, remains as critical as ever to Obama’s second term.

A confrontation in the next two months over the debt ceiling and the automatic spending cuts in sequestration is inevitable, but an equally pressing question for Boehner is how he will handle the issues of gun control and immigration.

The Speaker has said nothing about either issue in recent weeks, and amid a series of legislative firestorms, he hasn’t taken questions from the press in nearly a month.

Interviews with conservative lawmakers and their aides since the Newtown massacre indicate there has been little movement on the flashpoint of gun control, meaning Boehner may have to decide whether to block legislation demanded by Democrats or allow a vote that would not garner a majority of his conference – a move that could antagonize conservatives.

There may be more of an appetite for immigration reform among Republicans, and party leaders in particular. Boehner said shortly after the November election that a comprehensive approach to the issue is “long overdue.” And when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for reform during her speech to the full House last week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were two of the only House Republicans to join nearly all Democrats in applause.

A better sense of where the House GOP stands on immigration and guns may come after their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., next week, although the fiscal debate may dominate those discussions.

Republicans are also desperate for the White House to engage on comprehensive tax reform, a legacy goal for both Boehner and his Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.). Obama has said he wants to reform the tax code, but he has not listed it as a pressing priority.

And with feelings raw after the fiscal-cliff deal, the mood among Republican tax-writers is gloomy. As Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a senior Ways and Means member, said in The Hill last week: “I’m going to concede to you that we don’t have faith in this president to lead on anything.”

It’s a foreboding statement for the eve of Obama’s second inaugural, when the president hopes for a fresh burst of momentum.

He now has the agenda, but in a Capitol already retrenching after dangling off the fiscal cliff, he is not getting a fresh start with Republicans.

--Bernie Becker contributed.