No safe bets for Obama despite toned-down agenda

WASHINGTON (AP) President Barack Obama is laying down a three-item to-do list for Congress that might seem meager when compared with the bold, progressive agenda he envisioned at the start of his second term.

But after a bruising battle with Republicans that led to a 16-day government shutdown and a threat of a catastrophic debt default, even those three items immigration, farm legislation and a budget amount to ambitious goals that will take political muscle, skill and ever-elusive compromise to through a bitterly divided Congress.

"Those are three specific things that would make a huge difference in our economy right now," Obama said. "And we could get them done by the end of the year if our focus is on what's good for the American people."

A breakthrough on any of the three issues would be a welcome development for a political system whose utter dysfunction has been on full display lately. Both parties are looking for signs of whether the latest fiscal fight and its eleventh-hour resolution will make it easier or harder for the two parties to find common ground in the future.

Obama's supporters hope that the president can capitalize on what they're calling a big win after Democrats stood their ground throughout the standoff, refusing to give in to Republican demands that the president gut his own health care overhaul law in exchange for keeping the government open and increasing its borrowing capacity.

Republican approval ratings plunged throughout the crisis. The party is left contemplating a failed strategy championed by conservatives aligned with the anti-tax tea party movement, exposing deep Republican divisions and potentially giving Obama a temporary upper hand.

And the White House is hoping the hangover from the shutdown, which both sides acknowledge accomplished little, will produce a thaw in the intense pursuit of ideological posturing, creating an atmosphere more conducive to compromise and progress.

Still, the scaled-back vision for what might be feasible in the short term could be disappointing for Obama's backers, who have been looking expectantly to the president to enact as much of his agenda as possible before Washington is consumed next year by midterm congressional elections and the end of Obama's presidency draws nearer.

Obama began the year calling for gun control legislation, expanded preschool education, an immigration overhaul, a higher minimum wage and for initiatives to address climate change. But like other moments in Obama's presidency, fierce interparty divisions and fiscal showdowns have at times overwhelmed the capital and sapped it of any energy to move on other legislation.

Obama's gun control push, spurred by a shocking elementary school shooting in Connecticut, collapsed in the Senate. And immigration legislation attracted bipartisan support in the Senate but has stalled in the Republican-led House, a blow to Obama's hopes that Republicans would be motivated to support it after losing the Hispanic vote by wide margins in 2012.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to increase wages, expand access to pre-Kindergarten schools and reduce pollution have been nonstarters in the divided Congress.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will continue to press other priorities like college affordability, gun control and climate change, where the president has resorted to executive action after determining Congress was unlikely to act. But he said achieving a bipartisan budget deal or an immigration overhaul would represent no small accomplishments for the country.

"There's no question they're all difficult, given the current environment," Carney said, adding that "the president is not at all convinced by the skeptics who say that we can't get things done."

By focusing on the budget, immigration and the farm bill, which combines agriculture policy with anti-hunger measures, Obama chose three heavy lifts that are already in the congressional pipeline. Yet each is fraught with difficulties, and chances of success for each one are limited.

"This White House hasn't really demonstrated that it can walk and chew gum any more than Congress has," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton administration official.

Even in the first hours after the government shutdown ended, as Democrats and Republicans opened budget negotiations fault lines were beginning to emerge that could lead to deadlock if both sides adhere strictly to their previous positions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected the possibility that Democrats might agree to cuts to entitlement programs in exchange for relief from automatic spending cuts that took effect earlier this year, the result of another last-minute deal reached during a debt limit standoff in 2011.

In exchange for entitlement cuts, Reid said, Republicans would have to agree to higher taxes setting up an eerily familiar ideological clash between the two parties now charged with reaching consensus on a budget. Republicans will face intense pressure in their districts not to raise taxes, while Democrats will press Obama not to chip away at the nation's safety net.

Further complicating the chances for any legislative successes this year is the poisoned atmosphere created by the recent fiscal standoff. House Republicans in particular bristled at Obama's refusal to negotiate on the debt ceiling and at what they perceive as his belittling view of Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.

"This recent fight has spoiled the opportunity for getting anything major done by the rest of the year," said Ron Bonjean, a former top House and Senate Republican leadership aide. "There are a lot of hard feelings."

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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

Follow Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Jim Kuhnhenn at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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