WASHINGTON — The days ahead could be decisive ones for the main pieces of President Obama’s second-term agenda: long-range deficit reduction, gun safety and changes to immigration law.
With Congress back this week from a recess, bipartisan groups of senators who have been negotiating about immigration and gun violence are due to unveil their agreements, though prospects for a gun deal are in question as the emotional impact of the December massacre in Newtown, Conn., has faded and the National Rifle Association has marshaled opposition.
And Wednesday, Obama will send his annual budget to Capitol Hill intended as a compromise offer, though early signs suggest Republican leaders have little interest in reviving talks.
Members of both parties say Obama faces a conundrum with his legislative approach to a deeply polarized Congress. In the past, when he has stayed aloof from legislative action, Republicans and others have accused him of a lack of leadership. When he has gotten involved, they have complained they could not support any bill so closely identified with Obama without risking the contempt of conservative voters.
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Though Obama prevailed over Republican opposition in his first two years as president because Democrats had majorities in Congress, that changed when Republicans won control of the House in 2010, giving them a brake to apply to the president’s agenda.
Now the president’s three pending priorities are shaping up as test cases for how he and Republicans will work together — or not — in his second term.
Each measure — on the budget, guns and immigration — in its own way illustrates the fine line Obama must walk to succeed even with national opinion on his side. Privately, the White House is optimistic only about the prospects for an immigration bill, which would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million people in the country illegally.
That is because an immigration compromise is the only one Republicans see as being in their own interests, given their party’s unpopularity with the fast-growing Latino electorate.
In contrast, most Republicans see little advantage in backing gun legislation, given hostility toward it in districts throughout the South and the West and in rural areas.
A budget compromise would require agreeing to higher taxes, which are anathema to conservative voters, in exchange for Obama’s support for the reductions in Medicare and Social Security that they want.
Yet even on immigration, many Republicans are weighing their party’s long-term interests in supporting a compromise against their own short-term arguments for opposing one: Antipathy remains deep in conservative districts to any proposal that would grant citizenship.
That calculation also holds for Republicans planning to seek the 2016 presidential nomination.
Against this backdrop, Obama early on outlined elements he wanted in the immigration and gun measures. Then he purposely left the drafting to Congress.
On immigration, Obama had wanted to propose his own measure because he had promised Latino groups he would do so. But Senate Democrats advised against it, fearing an “Obama bill” would scare off Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has presidential ambitions.
Indeed, Rubio’s office once issued a statement to deny he was discussing immigration policy “with anyone in the White House,” even as it criticized the president for not consulting Republicans.
“I think he’s handled it just perfectly,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a Democratic leader who is part of the bipartisan negotiations on both issues, said of Obama.
“He’s mobilizing public opinion. He’s staying on top of the issues and being helpful. But at the same time he’s given us — in the House and Senate — space to craft a bipartisan agreement.”
While Obama is said to be actively involved in the immigration talks behind the scenes because of that bill’s better odds, on gun measures like tighter background checks he is waging his fight mostly in public settings far from Washington.
On Monday, he will travel to Connecticut to meet again with the families of those killed in the school shooting in Newtown last year. At the University of Hartford, he will give another speech calling for passage of gun legislation.
Even Democrats say these speeches are having no effect on Republican lawmakers. Yet White House aides predict if the gun issue dies, Obama will at least get credit for trying and Republicans will be blamed by the majority of Americans who favor tighter controls.
On Sunday, Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, intensified the White House’s efforts to shame Republicans threatening to filibuster a Senate vote on gun measures.
“Now that the cameras are off and they are not forced to look the Newtown families in the face, now they want to make it harder and filibuster it,” Pfeiffer said on the ABC News program “This Week.”
On the budget, Obama has tried both strategies — negotiating personally with Speaker John Boehner on a “grand bargain” for taxes and entitlement-program reductions, and when that failed, letting Congress try, which also failed.
Now, with the bipartisan effort moribund, the president has decided he has no option but to publicly take the lead to revive negotiations with hopes of drawing some Republican support.