New Year, Familiar Battles Ahead for Obama

New Year, Familiar Battles Ahead for Obama
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Following a vacation of golf and R&R in Hawaii, President Obama will tee up Tuesday what he hopes can be a “year of action,” beginning with a renewed push to resurrect expired federal unemployment insurance for millions of families.

The Senate had planned to vote on a bipartisan measure Monday evening, but postponed consideration because winter weather and canceled flights delayed senators’ return to the Capitol.

The two parties are at loggerheads over benefits that expired last month, and disagree whether Congress should offset costs of a proposed 12-week extension intended to buy time to reach a broader congressional accord. The battle resumed Monday, focused on a bipartisan measure co-sponsored by senators representing states with 9 percent unemployment.

“Today is the day that 1.3 million Americans start going to their mailbox and find that the check that they expected to get today is not there,” White House National Economic Adviser Gene Sperling told reporters in the briefing room, “the check that is a temporary lifeline for families who are facing long-term unemployment; a check that puts food on their table and perhaps the gas in their car they need to drive to interview for a new job.”

On Tuesday morning during an East Room event, Obama will urge Congress to come together to extend benefits. He’ll be joined by Americans who are still searching for employment, and lost their extended benefits when Congress let the law expire in December.

In a written statement Monday describing the president’s support for the measure, the White House told lawmakers “it is unprecedented for the Congress to allow emergency unemployment benefits to expire at a time when long‑term unemployment is as high as it is today.”

Obama has encouraged Congress to revive the benefits without pinpointing new budget cuts to defray the $6.5 billion price tag estimated over three months -- or nearly $26 billion over a year. Most Republicans continued to insist Monday on Capitol Hill that they cannot support extended unemployment benefits that add to deficit spending. Sperling signaled the White House may be open to offsets -- but as part of broader negotiations and preferably after Congress approves a short-term extension with no strings.

In other words, Obama’s “year of action” began with more sparring over continued unemployment, a frigid deep freeze (and not just in the weather), and uncertainty about a midterm election-year agenda.

Welcome back to Washington, Mr. President!

On a brighter note for the White House, the Senate voted 56-26 on Monday to confirm economist Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve, succeeding Ben Bernanke, who wraps up his second term as chair on Jan. 31. Yellen will become the first woman to lead the powerful central bank. And in applauding the Senate’s confirmation, Obama underscored his nominee’s progressive bona fides.

“I am confident that Janet will stand up for American workers, protect consumers, foster the stability of our financial system, and help keep our economy growing for years to come,” he said in a statement.

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, the president is expected to revisit ideas aimed at narrowing the gulf between the haves and have-nots in an expanding economy; to ask Congress to raise the minimum wage above $10 an hour; to advocate incentives for CEOs to hire the long-term unemployed; and to embrace a tax overhaul.

He’ll reprise administration efforts to pour federal dollars into aging roads, bridges and ports (Vice President Biden will be in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to deliver that message in the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Sandy); to expand early childhood education and deploy new technologies in classrooms; to curb global warming and embrace cleaner energy sources; implement the Affordable Care Act to expand coverage at lower costs; and offer more than 11 million people a long-term path to U.S. citizenship.

By Jan. 15, Congress must agree on a mammoth omnibus spending measure in order to affirm a broad bipartisan budget outline reached in December. Lawmakers’ final votes on all the spending details – such as what to invest to continue implementing the health reform law – are necessary to keep the government operating. Also this month, the president will begin to expand on his overall budget priorities and projections for economic growth, which he’ll unveil in February with a detailed blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October.

Before Obama delivers his State of the Union address, he’ll give another significant speech this month -- to explain his rationale for a more transparent and accountable National Security Agency surveillance regime devoted to thwarting terrorism. Eager to restore some of the public trust he lost after leaks about NSA spying by exiled former contractor Edward Snowden, Obama will explain why he decided to reject or endorse recommendations for changes.

Also on the international front, the president at the moment is juggling Middle East peace talks, escalating violence in Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan, and denuclearization negotiations with Tehran. A second peace summit among the United Nations, Russia and the United States, but not including Iran, will take place Jan. 22 in Geneva, aimed at bringing an end to Syria’s long-running civil war, as well as the resulting refugee crisis in neighboring Jordan and Turkey.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday warned that Afghanistan has “weeks and not months” to commit to a bilateral security agreement, which would enable some U.S. troops to remain there beyond 2014 to provide assistance. Obama has pledged to remove U.S. fighting forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and Pentagon plans have been drawn up to execute that order. President Hamid Karzai, limited to two five-year terms in office, has thus far refused to sign an agreement with Washington, and has voiced his distrust and criticism of the United States. An election for his successor is scheduled in Afghanistan in April.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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