Five big issues for the new Congress

6:29 PM, Jan 4, 2013   |    comments
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was re-elected as House Speaker of the 113th Congress, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. / AP Photo
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The 112th Congress was the least productive in 65 years, and it had the poor approval ratings to show for it.

If the new Congress, which was sworn in on Thursday, wants to polish up the legislative branch's reputation, there's plenty of opportunity. The 113th session is primed to make progress -- if it wants to -- on a number of significant issues, such as gun control, immigration, energy and taxes.

After the last Congress capped off its session with the dismally partisan "fiscal cliff" debate, it's unclear how functional Capitol Hill lawmakers will be this year, but here's a look at the issues they could tackle:

1. Fiscal issues

First and foremost, the new Congress will have to address the fiscal issues left on the table after the "fiscal cliff" deal was passed in the final hours of the 112th Congress.

Around mid-February, the Treasury Department is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced in late December that Treasury was already resorting to accounting tricks to skirt the $16.4 trillion limit. If Congress doesn't raise the limit, the federal government risks defaulting on its loans.

Additionally, Congress in February will have to address the "sequester" -- cuts amounting to $1.2 trillion over 10 years, hitting both the Pentagon and domestic programs. Both Democrats and Republicans think the across-the-board cuts should be scrapped or at least replaced with more strategic cuts. The "sequester" cuts were supposed to start this month, but the "fiscal cliff" deal passed on Jan. 1 deferred them for two months.

Meanwhile, on March 27, the last "continuing resolution" is set to expire. The "continuing resolution" is the bill Congress passed after it failed to pass a real federal budget. If it fails to pass another "continuing resolution" before the current one expires, some federal operations could shut down temporarily.

2. Immigration

The president has made clear that immigration reform is his top priority in his second term.

"I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done," Mr. Obama said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press." "I think we have talked about it long enough. We know how we can fix it. We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support."

Mr. Obama's immigration reform package will reportedly include a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, strengthened border security, an easier means of bringing in foreign workers under special visas, and stricter penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers. The White House is also reportedly planning a "social media blitz" to sell the package.

Republicans have plenty of motivation to work with the president and Democrats on this issue after Latino voters roundly rejected the GOP's presidential candidate, siding with Mr. Obama over Mitt Romney, 71 percent to 27 percent.

The GOP already demonstrated its renewed interest in this issue late last year, by pursuing legislation to welcome high-skilled immigrants, as well as their own version of the DREAM Act -- called the ACHIEVE Act -- that would give permanent residency to certain undocumented youths. Additionally, a group of bipartisan senators has already reportedly started meeting behind closed doors to discuss immigration legislation.

3. Gun control

Gun control may not have been a priority this year had it not been for the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month.

"I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this," Mr. Obama said in a news conference after the shooting. "We won't prevent them all, but that can't be an excuse not to try."

The president tasked Vice President Joe Biden with leading a task force that will produce a plan to reduce gun violence. The White House has said Mr. Obama would support an assault weapons ban, stricter background-check requirements and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

Democrats in this new Congress have already produced legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition clips, winning the support of some moderate Democrats. Even some Republicans have suggested they could get behind the bill. Mr. Obama has reached out to at least one lawmaker, moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who switched his position on gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The White House said the president was "heartened" by the evolving attitudes in Congress.

A CBS News poll conducted in the days following the Newtown shooting showed that the public is also ready a new look at gun laws: support for stricter gun control reached a 10-year high, and up 18 points from the spring of 2012.

Democrats sound hopeful about the likelihood of passing stricter gun control measures, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., remarking on CBS' Face the Nation, "We could be at a tipping point...where we might actually get something done."

The National Rifle Association, however, has made clear it will continue to oppose a ban on semiautomatic weapons and will push its own agenda.

4. Energy

Along with economic issues and immigration, Mr. Obama has signified that energy and climate change will be one of his second-term priorities.

"The temperature around the globe is increasing," Mr. Obama said in his first press conference after winning re-election. "I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions, and as a consequence, I think we have an obligation to do something about it."

Still, the president readily acknowledged that there's little political will or public appetite for significant steps to reform the nation's energy policies or reduce climate change.

"There's no doubt for us to take on climate in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices and understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that -- I won't go for that."

However, last year's extreme weather did manage to bring the issue back to the forefront of national discussion. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who for a long time would not endorse a 2012 presidential candidate, endorsed Mr. Obama after superstorm Sandy ravaged the Eastern seaboard. Extreme weather has become a pressing problem for transportation systems all across the country, not just in New York.

A few lawmakers have expressed interest in reviving the issue on the Hill: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., plans to lead weekly meetings to craft what she called a "major bill" to lower carbon emissions and "harden our infrastructure to protect our people against extreme weather." Meanwhile, incoming Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, is an advocate for developing alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

Some of the greatest motivation for Congress to act this year may come from California: The state is beginning its cap-and-trade program, making it the largest carbon marketplace in the nation. If the effort to cut carbon pollution succeeds without hurting the economy, other states -- and perhaps Congress -- could consider following suit.

5. Tax reform

During December "fiscal cliff" negotiations, both Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were looking for hundreds of billions in new revenue in 2013 through a tax reform process that eliminated some tax deduction and closes loopholes.

Ironically, the deal that emerged may have complicated the bipartisan goal of comprehensive tax reform -- instead of closing loopholes, the deal in fact added $70 billion worth of new loopholes.

Nevertheless, leaders in Congress say the deal laid down a foundation for real reform. "Now that we have prevented a Democrat tax increase, the Ways and Means Committee will lead the effort to reform our tax code to make it simpler and fairer for families and small businesses, while also making American businesses and workers more competitive in the global marketplace," said Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the tax-writing House committee.

The president has also expressed interest in working on individual and corporate tax reform -- and they may have to if they're looking for more revenues from the upcoming debt ceiling and "sequester" debates, since Republicans say they're done raising tax rates.

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