President Obama finds himself in an extraordinary situation. In the next few weeks, the president’s legacy will be formed and tested as Congress takes up the questions of gun control, immigration and the government’s budget for the upcoming year.
The president faces a steep battle against a recalcitrant Republican Party, which promises Obama a nearly impossible push toward moving his agenda through the House. The president faces a Congress opposed to all things that limit gun rights, which is hopelessly split among extremes in regard to the national budget and its Republican caucus is fighting ghosts from its past in regard to immigration.
Not only will the president need to win over his own party, which has been losing faith in Obama over recent budgetary concessions to the Republicans, he must negotiate with a Republican Party who has taken a “my way or the highway” attitude. The president finds himself at the horns of a dilemma: Either the president will be forced to not only bow before the Republicans’ demands, but also defend them against his own party or he will be forced to make a stand against the minority and risk the integrity of his presidency.
With polling at 90 percent or better of Americans in favor for universal background checks for all firearm sales, the current gun control fight is being seen as a referendum on the president’s ability to govern and to effectively work with Congress to draft legislation. With each new cut to the legislation, the president is receiving criticism of his inability to deal and negotiate with the Republicans.
The Republicans, of course, are facing their own horns — taking too strong a stance on issues that the people favor exposes the party for the 2014 midterm elections and threatens the Republicans’ control of the House. On the other hand, making concessions to the president threatens to alienate the conservative and extreme right wings of the party, weakening the party’s voting base.
In addition, the pipeline spill of the Exxon Pegasus in Arkansas raised the stakes in regard to negotiations about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. With Exxon taking a lackadaisical and defensive response to the spill, the president must navigate what many are considering a no-win situation — either he embraces the pipeline and accept the potential environmental risks or he rejects the pipeline and faces backlash from the Republicans and the energy industry.
During the prayer vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at Newtown, Conn. last December, the president made a plea to the American people: “If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”
«I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have?» he said.
Since this time, the president and the vice president have committed to a nearly non-stop campaign to drum up public support to great success. According to the most recent Gallup polling, 58 percent of all Americans are calling for stricter gun control laws, with only six percent asking for less strict laws.
Ninety-two percent agree that there should be a law which requires background checks before anyone can buy a gun at a gun show. Sixty-two percent believe that there should be a ban on magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets.
Despite the people’s overwhelming support of stronger gun control laws, many Republicans have refused to consider tighter controls. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have promised to block any gun-control legislation that they consider a threat to their perceived Second Amendment rights.
Several other Republicans — Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — have sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Monday stating that they would oppose a bill that «would infringe on the American people’s constitutional right to bear arms, or on their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance.»
This is causing the rift between the party’s mainstream and extreme wings to expand. «I don’t understand it. The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand,» Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CBS’ «Face the Nation.»
«I don’t understand it,» he said. «What are we afraid of?»
The highly influential National Rifle Association (NRA) is vehemently against even rational proposals from the president — including naming a director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is creating a fear among Republicans that they may be “primaried” — being forced to fight a primary fight against a Tea Party or NRA-favored candidate that, as the incumbent, is likely to lose.
Sen. McCain feels that knee-jerk rejections of gun control should not take the place of honest discussion on the Senate floor. «It depends on how they’re carried out, how long, what the depth of it is,» he said of the background checks. «This is another reason why we need to go to the floor. Everybody wants the same goal, and that is to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals and people who are mentally disabled. And background checks are being conducted. Are they sufficient? Are there ways we can improve those? Then I think that’s a subject the American people and the Congress could be helped by if we have a vigorous discussion.»
Of the president’s extensive proposal, the only point that is still being considered is that of universal background checks. The assault weapons ban was removed from the upcoming bill due to the fear that the provision would not have enough votes to defeat a filibuster.
There are real doubts that the president is willing to deal on immigration, or if he is willing to deal without concessions on other issues, such as the budget or gun control. With Latino support in the previous election of more than 76 percent, the president holds the high ground on this issue. As stated in the Republican National Convention’s “autopsy,” the party must make inroads with the Latino community if it hopes to stay viable in the future.
Republicans feel that the president can use immigration as an attack platform against the Republicans in 2014, pointing at them for their perceived inability or unwillingness to act. As this issue can — theoretically — be enough to win the Democrats the House in 2014, the Republicans are apprehensive, especially considering that during a recent fundraiser, the president spoke of the importance of restoring Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the Speaker’s chair.
Many now see that if the president does absolutely nothing on immigration, the Republicans will solely eat the blame. “If, in fact, nothing happens on immigration and guns, that presents Democrats with some issues to take into the 2014 election,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
The president may be facing other issues beside the Congress on the immigration fight. Ten U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have sued ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over a program introduced by the president that allows the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country before age 16 to remain in the country if they have no criminal record.
According to lawyers for the agents, the government’s plans “place the ICE agent plaintiffs on the horns of a dilemma. They must either comply with federal law and face disciplinary actions, or ignore the requirements of federal law and participate in the administration of an illegal program.”
The president has put himself out of a very high cliff when he introduced his budget, which made deep concessions to the Republicans. Chief among the features introduced in the president’s budget is chained CPI (consumer price index), which pegs increases to Social Security benefits to the rate of inflation, instead of a constant annual rate.
This has angered many progressive Democrats, feeling the president gave too much away for too little in return. However, the president’s budget calls for revenue increases — mostly from closing tax loopholes — which the Republicans oppose. The House Republicans have released their own budget which most experts consider to be impossible; for example, the budget calls for all benefits to the Affordable Care Act to be abolished, but for the tax to pay for said benefits to continue so that it can be used to pay for other things. With a Democrat-controlled White House and Senate, such a proposition is unthinkable.
There are no current plans for a House-Senate budget conference, as the gulf between the two budgets are so extreme. However, there is hope that the president can mediate a compromise. “I look forward to the president’s proposal next week that will continue prioritizing job creation and will hopefully push Republicans to move out of their partisan corner and toward the balanced and bipartisan deal the American people are expecting,” said a Democratic aide to Politico.
However, as the president’s budget is already a compromise budget, a stand-off against the Republicans may be inevitable.