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posted: 2/25/2013 12:03 PM

What's ahead in Congress this year

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Earlier this year, it seemed there might be some hope for Capitol Hill when Congress dealt easily with raising the debt ceiling. But don't let that single episode fool you. As President Obama and House Republicans circle each other over the forthcoming budget cuts known as the "sequester," it's a reminder that Congress and the White House have a complicated legislative agenda ahead -- and that none of the items on it will come easily.

We'll get to the specifics in a moment, but two things need to be said up front. The first is that despite President Obama's exhortations in his State of the Union speech, major policy changes will be difficult to make. The Democrats may have increased their margin in the Senate, but the Republicans still control the House. The ideological polarization and apparently incompatible views that marked dealings between the two bodies show no sign of abating. Significant policy initiatives are not impossible, but it's safest to have subdued expectations.

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Second, although rank-and-file members seem more willing than in the recent past to part with their caucuses on high-profile votes, power will continue to rest with the leadership. Over the year ahead, the dynamic to watch will involve the caucus leaders in both houses -- ordinary members may have some impact on the margins, but they won't be the center of the action.

The big issue, of course, will continue to be the budget and fiscal affairs. The major questions are: Can we get our fiscal house in order? Can we revive economic growth and make the investments we need in human and physical capital? And can we figure out a reasonable way to pay for the government we require -- one that doesn't need the 73,000 pages of rules and regulations that burden our current tax code?

However Congress and the White House proceed, it's unlikely there will be any "grand bargain." Instead, they are likely to make piecemeal progress on the core issues: increasing tax revenues and cutting spending on entitlements. Confrontations over these matters will make it harder to tackle other economic issues that need addressing, such as how to address the regulation of the biggest banks and how to finance the infrastructure that our economic growth desperately needs.

Congress will also turn to health care. As long as President Obama is in office, his signature health plan will not be repealed, but there will almost certainly be fights over its implementation and funding. The big issue -- how to control health care costs -- will remain a centerpiece of the debate, but it is unclear how it will get addressed.

On the other hand, there is unambiguous movement on immigration reform. While Democrats have coalesced around a comprehensive approach to the issue -- which would include ways of easing the stay of highly skilled workers, a guest-worker program, and a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country -- Republicans have generally preferred tackling specific issues separately.

The two sides can find common ground, especially on high-skilled workers. Possible citizenship, on the other hand, will be much knottier to resolve. So while the gridlock may be easing, comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system is not assured.

You can also look for piece-by-piece initiatives on gun control. While the White House and some members of Congress are looking for wide-ranging legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, others are focused on specific proposals that can gain bipartisan support. Some members with widely different views, for instance, are coalescing around an effort to expand requirements for background checks on gun sales.

Climate change, which gained national force last year with Hurricane Sandy, is less likely to see congressional action. Despite the certain threat of rising seas and storm surges, Congress seems unprepared to get serious about it. Instead, as he promised in the State of the Union, if Congress cannot act the president will take whatever steps he can by executive order, as he just did with cybersecurity.

There are drawbacks to this approach, but it is a reminder that when Congress is able to act it remains a player, and when it can't, it deals itself out of the policy picture.

• Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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