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Budget, immigration, gun control: Congress returns to debate cornerstones of Obama agenda

Presidents typically have a short window of opportunity in their second terms to ink major accomplishments, and the next few weeks will offer President Barack Obama a key test of his ability to do just that.

Congress returns from its recess Monday to begin work on central components of Obama’s second-term agenda. Their work over the next two months could begin to cement, just four months into Obama’s second term, the president’s political legacy.

A grand fiscal deal, immigration reform and tougher gun laws topped Obama’s second term agenda when he outlined them during a Dec. 30 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

All three of those priorities have, so far, eluded Obama over the past few months; whether the president can manage a victory on any of these issues could be decided in coming weeks.

Obama will release his own budget on Wednesday, following on the heels of divergent House GOP and Senate Democratic budgets that the respective chambers passed before last month’s holiday recess.  The broad outlines of the president’s budget were parceled out by the White House on Friday, detailing proposals to make some cuts in entitlement benefits as well as calls for additional taxes on the wealthy. The president’s budget essentially maintained the “grand bargain” framework he offered to House Republicans last year.

Read more: Obama to offer compromise budget to Republicans

And as lawmakers face a mid-May deadline to extend the government’s borrowing authority, or risk default on the national debt, they’ll look to the new proposal for any sign of breaking the fiscal logjam that’s characterized much of the president’s first term.

Republicans were quick to dismiss the president’s call for new taxes, something they have said is off the table in the wake of the fiscal cliff deal at the end of the year which included the expiration of many of the Bush-era tax cuts.  “At some point we need to solve our spending problem, and what the president has offered would leave us with a budget that never balances,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Friday.  The GOP’s stiff resistance amid the coming debt ceiling deadline would make for a tense series of wrangling between the White House and Capitol Hill on its own. 

Fiscal battles over tax hikes and automatic “sequester” spending cuts have taken their toll on Obama’s popularity; U.S. adults narrowly voiced a favorable opinion of Obama, 49 percent to 45 percent, in a Quinnipiac University poll last week. 

But two other cornerstones of the president’s second-term domestic agenda – gun legislation and immigration reform – could sink or swim as early as this month.

Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks to his car as he arrives at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Calif., on April 3, 2013.

A bipartisan group of senators has been working over the holiday recess to put the finishing touches on comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would give undocumented immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship. After having secured support for a guest worker component of the plan from both business and labor groups over the recess, formal legislation could come as soon as this week.

But Obama himself seemed to acknowledge during a fundraiser last week in California that immigration could face much smoother sailing in Congress than his other initiative, stricter gun laws.

"I am very optimistic that we get immigration reform done in the next few months," he said. "It's going to be tougher to get better gun legislation to reduce gun violence through the Senate and the House that so many of us I think want to see, particularly after the tragedy in Newtown. But I still think it can get done if people are activated and involved."

To that end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the holiday recess that he planned to introduce new gun legislation this month. But the base legislation would not include a measure to reinstate the assault weapons ban; it would, however, look to require background sales for all gun purchases.

That proposal isn’t even guaranteed to survive in the Senate. A group of conservative senators have vowed to require Democrats to produce the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, meaning the legislation would need some degree of Republican support – which is very much an open question.

Moreover, victory in the Senate could mean very little given the gauntlet any of these three initiatives would face in the House. Speaker John Boehner, the top House Republican, has offered little more than assurances that the House would “consider’ any legislation on guns or immigration sent its way by the president.

And, following the legislating this spring and summer, the window for further Obama accomplishments will begin to close as the rhythms of the 2014 and 2016 elections subsume a lame-duck presidency. Even as he spoke at a fundraiser on Wednesday for those 2014 elections, the president asserted his commitment to trying to achieve as much as possible before the campaign season takes over.

“My intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can’t have perpetual campaigns,” Obama said. “And so I mean what I say: I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day.”

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