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Obama Faces Political Challenges Back in Washington

President Barack Obama returns to Washington on Tuesday after an extended vacation with his family in Hawaii. The president begins the second phase of his presidency, one he has said will focus on the economy and jobs, facing opposition Republicans intent on undoing one of his major legislative victories, as well as foreign policy challenges.

The rest and relaxation that Mr. Obama was able to enjoy in Hawaii will quickly be replaced by a return to the partisan atmosphere in Washington, as he confronts a changed balance of power with a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

A new 112th session of Congress gets under way Wednesday.  Whatever momentum Mr. Obama obtained from legislative compromises with Republicans a few weeks ago will be tested as he works to prevent his historic health care reforms being taken apart.

House Republicans have pledged to begin debating as early as this week a measure proposing to repeal health care reform, with a possible vote by the middle of next week. Democrats have vowed to fight to preserve key provisions.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Congressman Fred Upton, incoming Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, suggested that a vote margin could be sufficient to override a presidential veto. "I don't think we are going to be that far off from having the votes to actually overturn a veto," he said.

But political analysts say even if a health care repeal measure passes in the Republican-controlled House, it will be largely symbolic.  Legislation would almost certainly die in the Senate where Democrats and Independents will still hold a 53 to 47 majority.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said again on Monday that Republicans will take political risks if they press to overturn popular aspects of the Obama health care reform, such as expanded coverage for children and for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

President Obama also faces other challenges from House Republicans, led by the incoming House Speaker John Boehner, who have vowed to cut what they call wasteful government spending.

California Republican Representative Darrell Issa, who will take over chairmanship of a key investigatory panel, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, promises probes on a range of issues involving spending and performance.

President Obama has said he is not against eliminating government programs that are not working, but would strongly oppose cuts to investment in education and other areas he calls critical to future economic growth.

In a news conference last month before leaving for vacation, President Obama said he was not "naive" to think there won't be tough fights ahead, but said he hoped for more cooperation from Republicans. "We have shown, in the wake of the November elections, that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together," he said.

Mr. Obama said he knows there will be battles over spending priorities, and the difficult challenges of bringing down the $1.3-trillion government deficit, and nearly $14-trillion national debt.  Americans, he added, will be better off from a sustained spirit of cooperation, regardless of political positioning for the 2012 presidential election.

It remains to be seen how the president and Republicans will handle recommendations of a presidential commission on the debt and deficit.  In a response posted on the social media website Twitter on Monday, White House Press Secretary Gibbs said failure to work together to get the U.S. fiscal house in order would "mortgage" the country's economic future.

The president begins the second half of his term encouraged by U.S. stock market gains, but still frustrated by high unemployment which still hovers around 9.8 percent.   Key public opinion polls just before his return to Washington show his job approval rating hovering at or below 50 percent.

In coming days and weeks, there is likely to be news about White House staff changes, among them the formal announcement of a replacement for Larry Summers, the outgoing head of the president's economic council.

Mr. Obama will also be maintaining his focus on key foreign policy issues.  In addition to the war in Afghanistan, the White House is closely watching the upcoming January 9th referendum in southern Sudan.  

The president is also hoping that Israel and Palestinians can move past roadblocks and disagreements from last year to move Mideast peace efforts forward.  A senior aide, Dennis Ross, is making another trip to the the region this week.

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