What Obama wants and what Congress will give him

How the president's vision fits with what Congress is likely to do.

President Obama offered a passionate defense of a progressive agenda in his inaugural address Monday, laying out the legislative priorities for the next four years that will likely be echoed in his State of the Union address next month. That includes unfinished business from his first term, such as immigration (which has a future in Congress) and climate change (which doesn’t). There was a pledge to protect the rights of gay citizens to marry (which may be decided by the Supreme Court) and to reduce the waiting time to vote (which may be decided by the states).

The people who hold the key to the president’s vision are the members of Congress with whom he will have to work. Here’s a look at how they might respond to his legislative proposals:

Climate change and sustainable energy: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said, rehashing failed pieces of his first-term agenda. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms," he added. Obama tried to push a sweeping cap-and-trade climate bill through Congress in his first term, but it died in the Senate in 2010. Since then, cap-and-trade has become politically toxic and is considered dead on arrival in Congress. The only way Obama could take action would be by using his executive authority to roll out controversial environmental regulations that would cut carbon pollution from existing coal plants. But that would generate massive push-back from industry and Environmental Protection Agency critics on Capitol Hill. At least Obama acknowledged that the path to sustainable energy “will be long and sometimes difficult.”

Immigration reform: The president has made no secret of the fact that he is going to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority of his second term. There is some bipartisan support, especially in the Senate, for legislation, but several sticking points remain. Lawmakers disagree on whether there should be a path to citizenship or merely legal status for illegal immigrants, and whether it should be presented as a comprehensive bill or several smaller pieces of legislation. And for immigration reform to pass in the House, Speaker John Boehner might have to violate the Hastert rule and bring legislation to the floor without the majority backing of his conference. Obama voiced support for one specific policy, arguing that immigration reform would be incomplete “until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” Easing the path to citizenship for high-skilled workers enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate, but will get caught up in the debate about the size of legislation.

Equal pay for women: “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” Obama said Monday. In 2009 Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, and with so much else on the agenda now, it’s hard to imagine the president expending much more energy on this issue in the next four years, let alone Congress. To wit, Republicans last year blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have beefed up protections for women in the workplace. The law has long been considered problematic in the business community because it would open employers up to lawsuits for situations that may not be well defined, like the definition of "fair pay."

Voting reform: Obama said that the country’s “journey” would not be complete "until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” It’s also a pledge he made during his acceptance speech on election night, telling the voters who waited in long lines that “we have to fix that.” But the president is largely powerless to invoke change on this issue because the nitty-gritty of the voting process is the jurisdiction of state and local governments. Although some Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Chris Coons of Delaware, introduced legislation to address long wait times, those efforts are likely to be blocked by a generation of Republicans elected on the promise to protect the 10th Amendment and states’ rights.

Gay rights: Obama said that his work would not be complete “until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” The administration will go head-to-head with Congress this year on the issue of gay marriage. Nearly two years ago, Obama ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Boehner announced shortly thereafter that the House of Representatives would take up defense of the law. A lawsuit, United States v. Windsor, has made its way to the Supreme Court, which has scheduled arguments for March. An affirmation of the administration’s position could pave the way for Obama to move more aggressively on gay marriage, which he now supports. If the courts do not back up his decision to no longer defend DOMA, he is unlikely to get sufficient support from Congress to repeal the law. Any further efforts to boost workplace protections for gays and lesbians in discrimination statutes have been blocked in Congress so far.

Unspoken agenda: The irony is that Obama spent more time talking about issues he will have a hard time moving the needle on than the issues sitting on his near-term agenda. Among them, several more rounds of fiscal battles that threaten to crowd out Obama’s second-term agenda won only passing reference. Obama said, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit” before defending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as commitments that strengthen the country. He offered perhaps one hint the he could be more likely to cut Medicare than insurance subsidies when he said, “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Also absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of guns, although he did say that Americans' won’t be complete until all children, including those from Newtown, know they are cared for. Education and investments in infrastructure similarly got short shrift, and health reform received no explicit shout-out even though its implementation is likely to be among the most significant changes that occur during his second term.

One word that could dominate the first 100 days of Obama’s second term was not even mentioned once: debt. 

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Coral Davenport, Fawn Johnson, Margot Sanger-Katz, and Amy Harder contributed to this report.

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