By Alexander Bolton - 04/08/13 09:00 AM EDT
The next 10 weeks are a make-or-break period for President Obama’s second-term agenda.
He needs quick victories in the Senate on gun control and immigration if he is to build momentum for a fight in the Republican-controlled House — the chief obstacle to his agenda.
The stakes are high for Obama; David Axelrod, his former chief political adviser, last week called immigration reform a “legacy item” for the president.
As the gun-control fight has gone on and Obama’s initial talk of wide-ranging reform has been trimmed and trimmed again, the president has faced renewed criticism over his ability — or inability — to shepherd meaningful legislation through Congress.
On immigration, there are doubts as to whether he seriously wants a deal. Many Republicans fear he would prefer to point a finger of blame at GOP lawmakers during the 2014 elections — and thus perhaps win the House back for Democrats — than actually achieve real progress with their help. They note that Obama last week was fundraising on the West Coast, speaking of the importance of returning California Democrat Nancy Pelosi to the Speakership.
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“If, in fact, nothing happens on immigration and guns, that presents Democrats with some issues to take into the 2014 election,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who recently served as a fellow in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office.
Young and minority voters, two traditional pillars of the Democratic base, are notoriously difficult to mobilize in off-year elections, but could be motivated on the two issues, Baker noted — particularly on immigration.
Obama has thrown the weight of his office behind a push for stricter gun-control measures, squaring off against the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington.
Losing such a high-profile battle when polls show voters support an assault-weapons ban and expanded background checks would rank as one of Obama’s biggest policy failures.
Proponents of immigration reform say it must pass before the end of June to avoid becoming entangled in the fight over the federal debt limit, expected in July.
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said, “That timing is realistic and gives enough room for the House to act. A big vote coming out of the Senate will be hard for the House to ignore, no matter what.”
That means it is important that the gun-violence package, which is scheduled first, does not become bogged down in negotiations or a protracted floor fight.
Obama’s immediate problem on guns is weak support from Democrats, especially centrists running for reelection next year in conservative or swing states. Defections by Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) during last month’s budget vote shows they will be hard to corral.
The White House and gun-control advocates are emphasizing widened background checks as the key reform necessary, but that will be a tough sell.
When asked about legislation to expand background checks to cover sales between private individuals, Begich said he wanted to see a Republican with an “A” rating from the NRA endorse it.
Democrats have courted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to no avail. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hasn’t given up, but Democrats’ time is already being squeezed up against the debt-ceiling showdown, which cannot be put off.
Gun violence legislation was expected to hit the Senate floor this week, but now that could be pushed to the week of April 15 to accommodate a possible bipartisan deal on background checks.
Gun control groups expect the floor debate to last two weeks, and plan to air ads and hold campaign events in the states of swing senators. Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent $12 million during the two-week Easter recess and plans another barrage later this month.
Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, appeared to lower expectations last week, saying that Obama would not hold out for a perfect bill.
“What the president wants to sign is the strongest gun bill he can sign,” Pfeiffer said. “What we have to make sure is that whatever we do is better than current law.”
Schumer, who is also spearheading the push for comprehensive immigration reform, initially predicted a bipartisan group of senators would have legislation by the end of March.
Immigration reform advocates now say a bill might not be unveiled until mid-April, which would push the Judiciary Committee markup into May.
That gives Senate Democratic leaders little time to move immigration reform, an issue that sat on the floor for weeks when the upper chamber last debated it in 2007.
Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform will do everything they can to slow down the legislation in committee and on the Senate floor to give their arguments more time to resonate with the public.
“There should be careful consideration of any bill that is going to affect the future of this country,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, a group that wants to curb immigration flows.
Six Republicans on the Judiciary panel wrote a letter on March 20 to Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the Senate leadership to warn against rushing the legislation.
“We must provide all members of the Senate, and, most importantly, the public, a full and fair opportunity to become adequately informed,” they wrote.
Democratic strategists fear if the measure strays into July, it will become embroiled in the fight over the debt limit, which Republican leaders say they will use as leverage to extract concessions from Obama on entitlement programs.
“They hope to get something through the Senate by June and then go to the House, certainly by the end of June if not earlier than that,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist.
He said a July debate on immigration reform “would bump into the debt-limit fight and it would be a problem.”