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Returning US Lawmakers Face Debt Ceiling, Immigration Challenges

Returning US Lawmakers Face Debt Ceiling, Immigration
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Statistics show that last year’s session of Congress was the least productive in history, with the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives far apart on most critical issues. Now, lawmakers are heading back to Capitol Hill for a fresh start in 2014, with plenty of unfinished business to take care of, including passing a Farm Bill, raising the debt ceiling and dealing with immigration reform.

Activists for immigration reform, like these hunger strikers, are likely to keep the pressure on the House of Representatives to take up the issue. The Senate passed a wide-reaching immigration reform bill last year. House Speaker John Boehner said he realizes reform is necessary. “The only way to make sure immigration reform works this time is to address these complicated issues one step at a time. I think doing so will give the American people confidence that we’re dealing with these issues in a thoughtful way and a deliberative way,” he said.

Some analysts say Boehner may bring the issue to the floor after Republican primaries are finished in May or June ahead of congressional elections in November. But most agree that immigration reform carries political risks for Boehner.

“It is not clear that he would go far enough to attract Democratic support, and if he goes very far, he would probably lose a lot of his conservative base. So nothing is guaranteed there,” said Thomas Mann, Brookings Institution.

Mann explained that on a number of key issues, Boehner is constrained by the conservative Tea Party wing of his own Republican party. "I think he will push back a little more this Congress. But the fact is, he has got a very conservative base. It is not just a handful of Tea Party members. The center of gravity in his party has moved far to the right since Barack Obama became president,” he added.

Other analysts say there is plenty of blame to go around for a lack of action in Washington.

"Well, I put the blame on the president for not being able to reach out and build coalitions, but it's very hard to build those coalitions because of the nature of the House right now. I put blame on the Republicans because they're not willing to reach out either. And many of them are quite ideological," stated James Thurber of American University.

A crucial test for the new legislative year is likely to come in February or March, when Congress will need to raise U.S. borrowing authority so the country does not default on its debt.

In his final news conference of the year, President Obama issued a warning to Republicans in Congress not to try to use the debt ceiling to force more spending cuts:

"The debt ceiling is raised simply to pay bills that we have already accrued. It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It's not leverage. It's the responsibility of Congress," said Obama.

Most analysts say another high-stakes showdown, like the one that led to a partial government shutdown in October, could hurt the economy and both sides at the polls.