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Analysis: Despite budget win, Obama has weak hand with Congress

U.S. President Barack Obama announces Jeh Johnson to be his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, in the Rose Garden of the White Hous
U.S. President Barack Obama announces Jeh Johnson to be his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, in the Rose Garden of the White Hous

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite his win last week in a debt ceiling standoff with Republicans, President Barack Obama has limited ability to achieve his policy goals through legislation, which could result in increased use of executive powers, administration officials and Democratic strategists said.

The 16-day partial government shutdown highlighted Obama's challenges in basic governing. Although he refused to concede to Republicans in exchange for reopening the government and raising the U.S. borrowing limit, he could not block the emergence of what he called a "manufactured" crisis.

The president would now like to seize momentum to push forward three legislative priorities: the farm bill, immigration reform and a more lasting budget deal.

But his chances of progress on those issues, particularly immigration reform, depend on convincing embittered Republicans to work with a White House many of them detest. That leaves Obama more or less at the same strategic juncture he encountered before the shutdown began.

"His only play is to just keep being consistent about trying to find ways for bipartisan cooperation on the things that need congressional action and then try to continue what he's been doing for years now ... and that's looking for ways to move the ball through executive action," a senior White House official told Reuters.

"In that sense, nothing has changed in our approach except that we and the whole town had to burn however many weeks on this detour - which is a shame."

Already this year, Obama has relied on executive actions to enact climate change and gun control policies that had weak congressional support. He could use the same authority to bypass lawmakers on other regulatory questions.

But that strategy has limits. Some of the administration's climate rules are being challenged at the Supreme Court, and Obama still needs Congress to enact the major reforms that his advisers hope will define his legacy.

"Obama did himself no favors when it comes to his own policy priorities," said an aide to John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

"His refusal to negotiate in good faith makes it difficult for our members to work with him on other big priorities. Immigration reform, already a huge task, looks even tougher."

The error-filled rollout of Obama's signature healthcare program hurts his ability to focus on other domestic policy goals as well. Republicans plan to hammer the administration in coming weeks over flaws that have prevented people from signing up for health insurance through new exchanges.

House Republican efforts to delay or defund the healthcare law, popularly known as Obamacare, triggered the partial government shutdown.

BUILDING COALITIONS

Lawmakers' votes on Wednesday to prevent the United States from going into default showed a narrow pathway to finding bipartisan support.

The Democratic-led Senate passed the measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling on an 81-18 vote, while the Republican-controlled House passed it 285-144.

That vote tally - 87 House Republicans supported the bill - combined with rock-solid unity among Democratic lawmakers, gives Obama's allies hope he can build other coalitions.

"I will look for willing partners wherever I can to get important work done," the president said on Thursday. "And there's no good reason why we can't govern responsibly, despite our differences, without lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis."

The first test of whether lawmakers can avert another crisis comes as a bipartisan panel considers a plan, due by December 13, to reduce the deficit. Under the compromise forged last week, the government would be funded through January 15 and the debt ceiling lifted through February 7.

That tight time frame does not allow much room for the president's other policy priorities to gain traction.

Democrats believe, however, that Obama's bargaining hand may be strengthened by the thrashing Republicans took in opinion polls over their handling of the shutdown.

"This shutdown re-emphasized the overwhelming public demand for compromise and negotiation. And that may open up a window," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's 2012 campaign spokesman and a former White House aide.

"There's no doubt that some Republican members (of Congress) are going to oppose policies just because the president's for it. But the hand of those members was significantly weakened."

If he does have an upper hand, Obama is likely to apply it to immigration reform. The White House had hoped to have a bill concluded by the end of the summer. A Senate version passed with bipartisan support earlier this year but has languished in the Republican-controlled House.

"It will be hard to move anything forward, unless the Republicans find the political pain of obstructionism too much to bear," said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic strategist and an adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

"That may be the case with immigration - they'll face pressure from business and Latinos to advance immigration reform," he said.

A White House official said Obama's options for using executive action to advance immigration reform were largely exhausted. Last year, his administration relaxed deportation rules for children who came to the United States illegally with their parents. The move helped boost his support among Hispanics, a key voting bloc, in last November's election.

If a package of immigration measures does not move soon, Democrats hope the results will show up in Republican defeats in next year's congressional elections. If Democrats regain control of the House, the way could be smoothed for comprehensive immigration reform in the second half of Obama's final term.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Peter Cooney)

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