Congress returns Monday for a pivotal week in which lawmakers will attempt to reach agreements on proposals for gun-control and immigration-reform — perhaps the two biggest issues in Washington this year.
Though the Senate has been working on both issues only since the new Congress began in January, Washington lawmakers have tried for years to draft comprehensive immigration reform, while the issue of gun-control was thrust upon them after 20 first-graders were killed in a December 2012 mass shooting.
A contentious public debate over the country’s flawed immigration system is expected as a bipartisan group of eight senators finalizes a bill to secure U.S. borders, allow tens of thousands of foreign workers into the country and grant eventual citizenship to the estimated 11 million people living here illegally.
Lawmakers came close to an immigration deal on the Senate floor in 2007, but it collapsed amid interest group bickering and public backlash.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a member of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” was already warning about the sharp edges of compromise on Sunday.
“There will be a great deal of unhappiness about this proposal because everybody didn’t get what they wanted,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The group planned to have a final proposal ready in March. However, talks have been slowed in part because of wrangling over the extent to which securing U.S. borders, specifically the one with Mexico, will set the stage for the path to citizenship.
New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told CBS the group hopes to reach a final deal by week’s end. He also said the legislation would be introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee with all 50 senators voting by May.
Immigration reform is a top, second-term priority for President Obama.
On Sunday, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the negotiators’ proposal is “100 percent consistent with what the president is doing so we feel very good about it.”
However, he declined to say on “Fox News Sunday” whether Obama would sign legislation making a path to citizenship contingent on first securing the border.
Pfeiffer also went on TV on Sunday to garner support for the president’s gun-control proposal.
With proposed bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity gun magazines off the table for now, Obama appears to be focusing his efforts on garnering public support and getting Congress to agree to universal background checks for gun buyers.
Pfeiffer said the president has “marshaled people to his side” and polls show a large majority of the public supports background checks.
“You cannot get 90 percent of the people to agree on the weather,” he told Fox. “The question is whether Congress is going to do the right thing.”
Pfeiffer said the president agrees with the efforts so far of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the other senators, following the mass shootings at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
“This is the best response to Newtown and gun violence in the country,” he said.
The president is going Monday to the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, to talk about gun control.
A White House official told Fox News on Sunday that Obama will speak about “the obligations we have to children lost in Newtown and other victims of gun violence” and the need to act on gun-control proposals.
Senators could start debating Democratic-written gun legislation before week’s end. But leaders also might decide to give negotiators more time to seek a deal on expanding background checks for firearms buyers.
Passing expanded background checks would be viewed as a victory for gun-control advocates, after Democratic leaders made it clear that supporters were nowhere close to getting a majority of votes in favor of re-instituting an assault-weapons ban.
The National Rifle Association opposes the assault-weapons ban and the expanded background checks.
Even with a background check deal, Senate debate on gun legislation may begin at a slow crawl with some conservatives promising delays and forced procedural votes.
The Senate gun legislation would toughen federal laws against illegal firearms sales, including against straw purchasers, or those who buy firearms for criminals or others barred from owning them. The legislation also would provide $40 million a year, a modest increase from current levels of $30 million, for a federal program that helps schools take safety measures such as reinforcing classroom doors.
Many experts agree that the proposal with the widest potential reach is a broadening of background checks, now required only for transactions by the roughly 55,000 federally licensed firearms dealers. Proponents want to cover private sales, such as those between individuals at gun shows or online.
One major hang-up has been Democrats’ insistence on retaining records of private sales, which they say is the best way to ensure background checks are actually conducted.
The system is aimed at preventing guns from going to criminals, people with severe mental problems, some drug abusers and others.
The NRA and other critics say the checks are ignored by criminals, and they fear that expanding the system could be a prelude to the government maintaining files on gun owners.
However, Senate aides said Sunday that West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey are working on a compromise to expanding required federal background checks to gun shows and to online firearms sales.
Manchin is a moderate with an A rating from the NRA, while Toomey has solid conservative credentials. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity.
With immigration reform, a major breakthrough occurred a couple of weeks ago when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO reached a deal to allow as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers into the country each year to fill jobs in construction, hospitality, nursing homes and other industries in which employers say they have a difficult time hiring Americans.
The eight negotiators also have pledged to move the bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, then to the chamber floor to head off complaints that the legislation is being rammed through.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — a potential 2016 presidential candidate who has been frustrated by efforts since being elected to the Senate in 2010 to pass immigration reform — has emerged as a key figure in negotiations.
On Sunday, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called Rubio a “game changer” for their party and assured people Rubio will not walk away from final negotiations.
“He will be there,” Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He also suggested, ahead of Obama releasing his 2014 budget Wednesday, Congress cannot reach a so-called “grand bargain” until it fixes immigration.
“I think if you do immigration and the grand bargain, this year will dominate the 21st century,” Graham told NBC. “The key to the grand bargain is can we solve immigration.”
Some sticking points remain — including the plan for a program to bring in agriculture workers, who weren’t included in the deal between the chamber and organized labor.
But Republicans are as interested as the president and other Democrats in reaching a comprehensive deal.
Roughly 71 percent of Hispanics voted to reelect Obama, a wakeup call to Republicans that Democrats may continue to hold the White House unless they make a better effort to bring Latino voters into the party.
PROMISES, PROMISES: OBAMA’S IOU’S START COMING DUE
By CALVIN WOODWARD | Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Presidential campaigns are long in the making, quick to be forgotten. But one part of them lives on for years: the victor’s promises.
President Barack Obama paved his path to re-election with fewer promises than in 2008. The ones he did lay down, though, are meaty, legacy-shaping for him and consequential to ordinary lives today and for generations to come, for better or worse.
They also are extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a time of gridlock grief and budgets that are tight when they are not paralyzed.
He’s promised to set a course in law against global warming, stop Iran from gaining the ability to make nuclear weapons, slash America’s use of foreign oil, restrain college costs, take a big bite out of the national debt even while protecting the heart of the big entitlement programs and overhaul immigration law.
He’s promised to make health insurance not only universally accessible, but “affordable,” through a 2010 health care law that is finally entering prime time and will soon be tested.
It’s a sure bet that many who voted Republican want some of Obama’s promises to fail. They didn’t sign up for tax increases on the wealthy or a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.
But as closely divided as the country is, most Americans support Obama’s ends, if not the means. Who doesn’t want a lighter national debt or better health care for less?
In that sense, everyone’s got a stake in seeing him make good on his broad-brush promises.
Whatever a candidate’s promises, legacies are made by how a president manages matters of war and peace, economic growth and weakness, social change and traditional values, and whatever crises come out of the blue.
If this decade somehow becomes the Roaring Teens, history may not care much about a big broken promise or two. If jobs are demolished, that’s what will be remembered, not that 9 out of 10 promises might have been kept.
But Obama made a pact with voters, not historians, and he’s got IOUs outstanding.
Republican lawmakers do, too.
They don’t inherit the promises of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and did not campaign with one voice. But they presented themselves unmistakably as the party of smaller government, low taxes, a strong military capability and fiscal restraint. They have to answer to voters in 2014 for what they deliver and fail to do.
So must Democrats.
Voters can’t throw Obama out of office if he botches his job this term. But the president still has skin in the game.
With a chunk of the Senate and all of the House up for grabs in 2014, Obama would have an easier time making good on his promises if Democrats were able to hang on to the Senate, win back control of the House or both. That’s a tall order, given that the party holding the White House historically has lost seats in the sixth year of a presidency.
In this series, Associated Press writers who cover subjects key to Obama’s agenda and that of the GOP examine his main campaign promises, their chances of being kept and their likely impact on people.
OBAMA MUST WALK FINE LINE AS CONGRESS TAKES UP AGENDA
By: Jackie Calmes | The New York Times
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 massacre in Newtown, Conn., has faded and the National Rifle Association has marshaled opposition. And on Wednesday, Mr. Obama will send his annual budget to Capitol Hill intended as a compromise offer, though early signs suggest that Republican leaders have little interest in reviving talks. (Read More: Obama Budget to Cut Spending, Call for Higher Taxes)
Members of both parties say Mr. 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 that they could not support any bill so closely identified with Mr. Obama without risking the contempt of conservative voters.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, called this predicament Mr. Obama’s ”Catch-22.” And Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said he had often seen it at work since 2010 while negotiating with Republican lawmakers to reach a long-term budget agreement.
At times, Mr. Warner said, Republicans would urge him to get Mr. Obama more involved, saying, ”Gosh, Warner, we’ve got to have the president.” Other times, he said, the same lawmakers would plead otherwise, saying, ”If the president comes out for this, you know it is going to kill us in the House.”
”Everybody wants him involved to the right degree at the right moment,” Mr. Warner said, ”but not anytime before or after.”
The challenge for Mr. Obama became evident as soon as he took office, when Republicans almost unanimously opposed his economic stimulus package even as the recession was erasing nearly 800,000 jobs a month. The author Robert Draper opened his recent book about the House, ”Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” with an account from Republican leaders who dined together on the night of Mr. Obama’s 2009 inauguration and agreed that the way to regain power was to oppose whatever he proposed.
Though Mr. Obama was able to prevail over Republican opposition in his first two years as president because Democrats had majorities in the House and the Senate, that changed when Republicans won control of the House in 2010, giving them a brake to apply to the president’s agenda.
Other than the stimulus experience in early 2009, the moment that most captured that polarization for the White House occurred a year later. In early 2010 Republican senators, including the minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, demanded that Mr. Obama endorse bipartisan legislation to create a deficit-reduction commission. But when he finally did so, they voted against the bill, killing it.
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 that Mr. 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 that 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 their states or 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Obama early on outlined elements that he wanted in the immigration and gun measures. Then he purposely left the drafting to Congress. Senior aides, mainly the chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, and the deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, check in daily with senators. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. stays in touch with his former Senate colleagues about the gun bill talks.
On immigration, Mr. 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 Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has presidential ambitions. Indeed, Mr. Rubio’s office once issued a statement to deny that 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,” Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democratic leader who is part of the bipartisan negotiations on both issues, said of Mr. 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 Mr. 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 of firearms purchasers 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. Mr. Schumer and Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, spoke again over the weekend but have been unable to reach a deal, raising interest in a fallback proposal that two other senators—Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia—are working on.
Yet White House aides predict that if the gun issue dies, Mr. 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 Mr. Obama, intensified the White House‘s efforts to shame Republicans who are 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,” Mr. Pfeiffer said on the ABC News program ”This Week.”
On the budget, Mr. Obama has tried both strategies—negotiating personally with Speaker John A. 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.
So the budget he is sending to Congress will embody his last compromise offer to Mr. Boehner in December. For the first time, Mr. Obama is formally proposing to reduce future Social Security benefits, if Republicans will agree to higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations.
Republican leaders already have rejected the overture, based on early reports about it. But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on NBC’s ”Meet the Press” on Sunday that Mr. Obama is ”showing some signs of leadership that’s been lacking. I’m encouraged.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama is to dine with a dozen rank-and-file Republican senators, hoping they might deal with him on the budget, as well as on immigration and gun measures.
POLL: OBAMA UNDERWATER ON GUNS, IMMIGRATION, DEFICIT
By DONOVAN SLACK | POLTICO
A new CNN/ORC International poll found President Obama’s overall approval rating has ticked up to 51 percent but ratings have fallen on his handling of the key issues on his agenda: immigration, guns, and the deficit.
On immigration, 44 percent approve of the way he is handling the issue, down from 51 percent in January. At the same time, disapproval has jumped to 50 percent, up from 43 percent in January.
On guns, 45 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, the poll found. In January, 46 percent approved and 49 percent dispproved.
And on the deficit, 38 percent approve of his handling of the issue, down from 41 percent in January, while disapproval ticked up slightly to 58 percent from 57 percent.
Overall, his approval rating inched up 4 points and his disapproval rating fell 3 points since last month to 47 percent, the poll found.
ORC International surveyed 1,012 adults across the country from April 5-7, CNN reported. The margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points.